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.”

Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

Roivant par­lays a $450M chunk of eq­ui­ty in biotech buy­out, grab­bing a com­pu­ta­tion­al group to dri­ve dis­cov­ery work

New Roivant CEO Matt Gline has crafted an all-equity upfront deal to buy out a Boston-based biotech that has been toiling for several years now at building a supercomputing-based computational platform to design new drugs. And he’s adding it to the Erector set of science operations that are being built up to support their network of biotech subsidiaries with an eye to growing the pipeline in a play to create a new kind of pharma company.

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Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck takes a swing at the IL-2 puz­zle­box with a $1.85B play for buzzy Pan­dion and its au­toim­mune hope­fuls

When Roger Perlmutter bid farewell to Merck late last year, the drugmaker perhaps best known now for sales giant Keytruda signaled its intent to take a swing at early-stage novelty with the appointment of discovery head Dean Li. Now, Merck is signing a decent-sized check to bring an IL-2 moonshot into the fold.

Merck will shell out roughly $1.85 billion for Pandion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech hoping to gin up regulatory T cells (Tregs) to treat a range of autoimmune disorders, the drugmaker said Thursday.

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Per­cep­tive's fourth — yes, fourth — SPAC jumps to Nas­daq as the blank check tree con­tin­ues to ripen

The biotech SPAC boom has gone almost hand-in-hand with the industry’s IPO gold rush, and this week saw more blank check companies hop aboard the train.

Leading the way is Perceptive Advisors’ fourth SPAC, appropriately named Arya Sciences Acquisition IV, which priced Friday morning after raising $130 million. And on top of that, new Ziopharm executive chair James Huang is launching his own SPAC with MSD Partners and Panacea Venture, filing S-1 paperwork Thursday with plans to raise $200 million.

CEO Fred Aslan (Artiva)

NK cell ther­a­py play­er Arti­va makes some more noise, pulling in $120M Se­ries B less than a month af­ter Mer­ck deal

Not even one month after Big Pharma took notice of Artiva when Merck signed a collaboration worth nearly $2 billion in milestones, the off-the-shelf NK cell biotech already has its next big fundraise.

Artiva returns from the venture well Friday with a $120 million Series B round, money they will use to get their first program into the clinic and to file INDs for another two candidates. The raise marks the latest development in a rapidly expanding footprint for Artiva, which, in addition to the Merck deal last month, has now raised almost $200 million since its Series A last June.

With dust set­tled on ac­tivist at­tack, Lau­rence Coop­er leaves Zio­pharm to a new board

Laurence Cooper has done his part.

In the five years since he left a tenured position at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center to become CEO of Boston-based Ziopharm, he’s steered the small-cap immunotherapy player through patient deaths in trials, clinical holds, short attacks and, most recently, an activist attack on the board.

So when the company has “fantastic news” like an IND clearance for a TCR T cell therapy program, he’s ready to pass on the baton.

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Doug Ingram (file photo)

Why not? Sarep­ta’s third Duchenne MD drug sails to ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval

Sarepta may be running into some trouble with its next-gen gene therapy approach to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But when it comes to antisense oligonucleotides, the well-trodden regulatory path is still leading straight to an accelerated approval for casimersen, now christened Amondys 45.

We just have to wait until 2024 to find out if it works.

Amondys 45’s approval was unceremonious, compared to its two older siblings. There was no controversy within the FDA over approving a drug based on a biomarker rather than clinical benefit, setting up a powerful precedent that still haunts acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock as biotech insiders weighed her potential permanent appointment; no drama like the FDA issuing a stunning rejection only to reverse its decision and hand out an OK four months later, which got more complicated after the scathing complete response letter was published; no anxious tea leaf reading or heated arguments from drug developers and patient advocates who were tired of having corticosteroids as their loved ones’ only (sometimes expensive) option.

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Steve Cutler, Icon CEO (Icon)

In the biggest CRO takeover in years, Icon doles out $12B for PRA Health Sci­ences to fo­cus on de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal work

Contract research M&A had a healthy run in recent years before recently petering out. But with the market ripe for a big buyout and the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizing the importance of decentralized trials, Wednesday saw a tectonic shift in the CRO world.

Icon, the Dublin-based CRO, will acquire PRA Health Sciences for $12 billion in a move that will shake up the highest rungs of a fragmented market. The merger would combine the 5th- and 6th-largest CROs by 2020 revenue, according to Icon, and the merger will set the newco up to be the second-largest global CRO behind only IQVIA.

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