Pre­ci­sion ther­a­py ap­proach se­cures small biotech $42M haul to com­bat dis­ease that in­spired the Ice Buck­et Chal­lenge

Akin to cys­tic fi­bro­sis (CF), sci­en­tists un­der­stand that cer­tain mu­ta­tions con­tribute to the de­vel­op­ment of the fa­tal neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­der amy­otroph­ic lat­er­al scle­ro­sis (ALS). And much like CF drug­mak­er Ver­tex, a small Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts-based biotech is forg­ing a path to en­gi­neer­ing pre­ci­sion ther­a­pies to treat the dis­ease that killed vi­sion­ary physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing.

The com­pa­ny, chris­tened QurAlis, now has $42 mil­lion in its cof­fers with three pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams and 5 em­ploy­ees (in­clud­ing se­nior man­age­ment) to com­bat an ill­ness that has long flum­moxed re­searchers, re­sult­ing in a cou­ple of ap­proved ther­a­pies over the course of decades, nei­ther of which at­tacks the un­der­ly­ing cause of the rare pro­gres­sive con­di­tion that at­tacks nerve cells lo­cat­ed in the brain and spinal cord re­spon­si­ble for con­trol­ling vol­un­tary mus­cles.

ALS gar­nered in­ter­na­tion­al at­ten­tion when New York Yan­kees play­er Lou Gehrig abrupt­ly re­tired from base­ball in 1939, af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with the dis­ease. In 2014, ALS re­turned to the spot­light with the “Ice Buck­et Chal­lenge,” which in­volved peo­ple pour­ing ice-cold wa­ter over their heads, post­ing a video on so­cial me­dia, and do­nat­ing funds for re­search on the con­di­tion.

Kasper Roet

QurAlis chief Kasper Roet, whose in­ter­est in ALS was piqued while he was work­ing on his PhD at the Nether­lands In­sti­tute for Neu­ro­science fo­cus­ing on a treat­ment for spinal cord paral­y­sis and moon­light­ing at the Nether­lands Brain Bank as an ad-hoc au­top­sy team co­or­di­na­tor, saw an op­por­tu­ni­ty to com­bat ALS when Har­vard sci­en­tists Kevin Eggan and Clif­ford Woolf pi­o­neered some new stem cell tech­nol­o­gy.

Es­sen­tial­ly, they found a way to take skin cells from a pa­tient, turn them in­to stem cells, and turn those in­to the nerve cells that are de­gen­er­at­ing. “That’s the miss­ing link,” Roet said. “So now we can fi­nal­ly use pa­tients’ own cells to both do tar­get dis­cov­ery and de­vel­op po­ten­tial ther­a­peu­tics.”

So Roet packed up his things and shift­ed base to Boston to learn more, with plans to head back to Eu­rope to start a com­pa­ny. He nev­er left. QurAlis was born in 2016, work­ing out of a co-work­ing space called Lab­Cen­tral af­ter win­ning a spot via an Am­gen-spon­sored in­no­va­tion com­pe­ti­tion. The com­pa­ny was carved out of a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Eggan’s start­up Q-State Bio­sciences, which de­vel­oped laser tech­nol­o­gy to ex­am­ine cell be­hav­ior — ex­am­in­ing how a neu­ron fires was im­per­a­tive in the drug dis­cov­ery process for ALS.

QurAlis, which counts Ver­tex’s found­ing sci­en­tist Manuel Navia as an ad­vi­sor, now has three pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams. The fur­thest along is a ther­a­py de­signed to tar­get a spe­cif­ic potas­si­um chan­nel that is im­pli­cat­ed in cer­tain ALS pa­tients — the plan is to take that small mol­e­cule in­to the clin­ic next year, Roet said.

“It has be­come re­al­ly clear that if you un­der­stand why a spe­cif­ic tu­mor is de­vel­op­ing … you can de­vel­op very spe­cif­ic tar­get­ed ther­a­pies,” he ex­plained in an in­ter­view draw­ing a par­al­lel be­tween ALS and on­col­o­gy. “That’s ex­act­ly the same strat­e­gy that we are fol­low­ing for ALS. The ge­net­ics have shown that over 25 genes are caus­ing the (ALS) mu­ta­tions. Some of them work to­geth­er, some of them are very dom­i­nant and work alone — what we are do­ing is try­ing to get those spe­cif­ic pro­teins that are tied to very spe­cif­ic ALS pop­u­la­tions, where we know that that spe­cif­ic tar­get plays a very im­por­tant and cru­cial role in the de­vel­op­ment of the dis­ease.”

In 2018, QurAlis scored seed fund­ing from Am­gen, Alexan­dria, and MP Health­care Ven­ture Man­age­ment. The Se­ries A in­jec­tion was led by LS Po­laris In­no­va­tion Fund, lead seed in­vestor Mis­sion Bio­Cap­i­tal, INKEF Cap­i­tal and the De­men­tia Dis­cov­ery Fund, and co-led by Droia Ven­tures. Ad­di­tion­al new in­vestors in­clude Mit­sui Glob­al In­vest­ment and Dol­by Fam­i­ly Ven­tures, and ex­ist­ing in­vestors Am­gen Ven­tures, MP Health­care Ven­ture Man­age­ment, and San­ford Bio­sciences al­so chipped in.

Roet is not sure how long these funds will last, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en the un­cer­tain­ty of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic. But some of the cap­i­tal will be used in hir­ing, giv­en that the QurAlis team is com­prised of a mere five peo­ple, in­clud­ing Roet.

“We’ve been very pro­duc­tive,” he said. “But we can def­i­nite­ly use some ex­tra hands.”

Late Fri­day ap­proval; Trio of biotechs wind down; Stem cell pi­o­neer finds new fron­tier; Biotech icon to re­tire; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

I hope your weekend is off to a nice start, wherever you are reading this email. As for me, I’m trying to catch the tail of the Lunar New Year festivities.

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Pfiz­er lays off em­ploy­ees at Cal­i­for­nia and Con­necti­cut sites

Pfizer has laid off employees at its La Jolla, CA, and Groton, CT sites, according to multiple LinkedIn posts from former employees.

The Big Pharma confirmed to Endpoints News it has let go of some employees, but a spokesperson declined to specify how many workers were impacted and the exact locations affected. Earlier this month, the drug developer had confirmed to Endpoints it was sharpening its focus and doing away with some early research on areas such as rare disease, oncology and gene therapies.

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In­vestor 'misalign­men­t' leads to tR­NA biotech's shut­ter­ing

A small biotech looking to carve a lane in the tRNA field has folded, an investor and a co-founder confirmed to Endpoints News.

Similar to Flagship’s Alltrna and other upstarts like Takeda-backed hC Bioscience, the now-shuttered Theonys was attempting to go after transfer RNA, seen as a potential Swiss Army knife in the broader RNA therapeutics space. The idea is that one tRNA drug could be used across a galaxy of disorders and diseases.

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Rodney Rietze, iVexSol CEO

Bris­tol My­ers, Charles Riv­er join Se­ries A fund­ing for iVex­Sol

Massachusetts-based iVexSol has secured funding to the tune of $23.8 million in its latest Series A round. The new investors include Bristol Myers Squibb, manufacturer Charles River Laboratories and Asahi Kasei Medical.

iVexSol is a manufacturer of lentiviral vectors (LVV), used in making gene therapies, and this latest round of fundraising brings its total Series A total over $39 million, which will be used to recruit more employees and bolster its technology.

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Jake Van Naarden, Loxo@Lilly CEO

Lil­ly en­ters ripe BTK field with quick FDA nod in man­tle cell lym­phoma

Eli Lilly has succeeded in its attempt to get the first non-covalent version of Bruton’s tyrosine kinase, or BTK, inhibitors to market, pushing it past rival Merck.

The FDA gave an accelerated nod to Lilly’s daily oral med, to be sold as Jaypirca, for patients with relapsed or refractory mantle cell lymphoma.

The agency’s green light, disclosed by the Indianapolis Big Pharma on Friday afternoon, catapults Lilly into a field dominated by covalent BTK inhibitors, which includes AbbVie and Johnson & Johnson’s Imbruvica, AstraZeneca’s Calquence and BeiGene’s Brukinsa.

Tony Johnson, Goldfinch Bio CEO (Goldfinch via YouTube)

Kid­ney dis­ease drug­mak­er Goldfinch Bio shuts down

Goldfinch Bio, attempting to make treatments for kidney diseases and diabetic nephropathy, is shutting down.

President and CEO Tony Johnson confirmed to Endpoints News Friday afternoon that the biotech shut down after “fundraising challenges in the current macro-environment.” Fierce Biotech first reported the news.

Johnson, who joined in 2017 after a stint as SVP of early clinical development at AstraZeneca, said in a text that the company “entered the ABC process recently,” referring to an assignment for the benefit of the creditors, which provides a different wind-down avenue than a bankruptcy.

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Filip Dubovsky, Novavax CMO

No­vavax gets ready to take an­oth­er shot at Covid vac­cine mar­ket with next sea­son plans

While mRNA took center stage at yesterday’s FDA vaccine advisory committee meeting, Novavax announced its plans to deliver an updated protein-based vaccine based on new guidance.

Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) members voted unanimously in favor of “harmonizing” Covid vaccine compositions, meaning all future vaccine recipients would receive a bivalent vaccine, regardless of whether they’ve gotten their primary series.

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Ali Madani, Profluent founder and CEO

Proflu­ent de­buts to de­sign pro­teins with ma­chine learn­ing in bid to move past 'AI sprin­kled on top'

While OpenAI’s Microsoft-allied ChatGPT takes the world by storm, a fledgling startup in Berkeley, CA is debuting to take a similar language-learning model approach, but with the goal of designing new proteins.

Profluent, founded by a former Salesforce AI research leader, has secured $9 million to kick-start its work, with proceeds going toward building out an integrated wet lab and recruiting machine learning scientists and biologists. Insight Partners led the seed round. The investor base also includes Air Street Capital, AIX Ventures and Phoenix Venture Partners.

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Eliot Forster, F-star CEO (Rachel Kiki for Endpoints News)

F-star gets down to the wire with $161M sale to Chi­nese buy­er as na­tion­al se­cu­ri­ty con­cerns linger

With the clock ticking on F-star Therapeutics’ takeover by a Chinese buyer, the companies are still scrambling to remove a hold on the deal from the US government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

F-star and invoX Pharma said they are “actively negotiating” with CFIUS “about the terms of a mitigation agreement to address CFIUS’s concerns regarding potential national security risks posed by the transaction.”

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