Say­onara No­var­tis: Ex-cell ther­a­py chief chal­lenges CAR-T lead­ers, moves to Carl June’s biotech start­up

Us­man “Oz” Azam

Three months af­ter No­var­tis de­clared its big biotech ex­per­i­ment in cell ther­a­pies ka­put and dis­solved the 400-per­son unit, its for­mer chief has now jumped ship to run a cell ther­a­py up­start which he is al­ready in­ti­mate­ly fa­mil­iar with.

Us­man ‘Oz’ Azam has tak­en the helm of Tmu­ni­ty Ther­a­peu­tics in Philadel­phia, which was found­ed by one of Penn’s star sci­en­tists, Carl June, with an eye to de­vel­op­ing new, cu­ra­tive cell ther­a­pies. It launched in Jan­u­ary with $10 mil­lion in back­ing from Penn Med­i­cine, the aca­d­e­m­ic med­ical cen­ter of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, and Lil­ly Asia Ven­tures.

Azam gained a high pro­file in the Cell & Gene Ther­a­pies Unit at No­var­tis, right up un­til the phar­ma gi­ant stunned vir­tu­al­ly every­one in the field with its de­ci­sion to shut­ter the op­er­a­tion, just months ahead of its first planned CAR-T fil­ing. About 120 peo­ple were ter­mi­nat­ed and No­var­tis said at the time that Azam was leav­ing the phar­ma gi­ant.

The first CAR-Ts have demon­strat­ed some clear promise, but are al­so af­flict­ed by se­vere safe­ty is­sues and lim­i­ta­tions to their use in sol­id tu­mors. Tmu­ni­ty is part of a sec­ond wave of star­tups that will be chal­leng­ing No­var­tis, Kite and Juno with new and bet­ter tech­nolo­gies that ex­pect to im­prove safe­ty and ex­pand ef­fi­ca­cy to new pa­tient groups and new dis­eases out­side of on­col­o­gy.

“Oz brings the ide­al skill set and breadth of per­spec­tive to Tmu­ni­ty as we move our first T cell re­cep­tor and CAR pro­grams to­ward the clin­ic,” said Carl H. June, MD, co-founder and chief sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­sor of Tmu­ni­ty Ther­a­peu­tics. “Oz shares our vi­sion to make Tmu­ni­ty the glob­al leader in trans­form­ing the lat­est in­sights about T cell bi­ol­o­gy and T cell en­gi­neer­ing in­to po­ten­tial­ly cu­ra­tive ther­a­pies for pa­tients.”

“I have had the op­por­tu­ni­ty to pur­sue the de­vel­op­ment of nov­el drugs and bi­o­log­ics for near­ly 20 years but I have nev­er been more ex­cit­ed about the po­ten­tial we have at Tmu­ni­ty to make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the treat­ment of can­cer, HIV, and au­toim­mune dis­ease by de­liv­er­ing the promise of T cell med­i­cine,” said Azam. “To do so, we are cre­at­ing a busi­ness mod­el that rapid­ly and seam­less­ly in­te­grates re­search, trans­la­tion­al med­i­cine, man­u­fac­tur­ing sci­ence, qual­i­ty by de­sign, clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, and cus­tomer cen­tric ap­proach­es to fos­ter fur­ther suc­cess­ful com­mer­cial adop­tion of cell and gene ther­a­pies.”

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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So what hap­pened with No­var­tis' gene ther­a­py group? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1,500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

Vicente Anido (University of West Virginia via YouTube)

Aerie fires CEO af­ter lead pro­gram flop, com­ments about pri­ma­ry end­points be­ing 'not re­quired'

Aerie Pharmaceuticals CEO Vicente Anido has left the company less than a week after trying to chart a Phase III study in the wake of a serious Phase IIb flop.

Anido’s last day at Aerie was Friday, the biotech announced in a news release Tuesday morning, and Benjamin McGraw is taking his place in an interim role. The now former CEO was terminated without cause, according to an SEC filing.

The board has started looking for a full-time chief to take his place.

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When ef­fi­ca­cy is bor­der­line: FDA needs to get more con­sis­tent on close-call drug ap­provals, agency-fund­ed re­search finds

In the exceedingly rare instances in which clinical efficacy is the only barrier to a new drug’s approval, new FDA-funded research from FDA and Stanford found that the agency does not have a consistent standard for defining “substantial evidence” when flexible criteria are used for an approval.

The research comes as the FDA is at a crossroads with its expedited-review pathways. The accelerated approval pathway is under fire as the agency recently signed off on a controversial new Alzheimer’s drug, with little precedent to explain its decision. Meanwhile, top officials like Rick Pazdur have called for a major push to simplify and clarify all of the various expedited pathways, which have grown to be must-haves for sponsors of nearly every newly approved drug.

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Af­ter sell­ing to Genen­tech, the old Je­cure team is back at an RNA-fo­cused start­up — and more en­thu­si­as­tic than ever

When Genentech swooped in to buy NASH-focused Jecure Therapeutics back in 2018, a handful of the startup’s executives weren’t quite ready to disperse.

It had been just three years since Jecure launched with a preclinical portfolio of NLRP3 inhibitors — and the takeover came sooner than anyone, including CEO Jeff Stafford, had expected. So he got talking with James Veal and Gretchen Bain, two serial entrepreneurs in charge of Jecure’s R&D.

Lat­est news: It’s a no on uni­ver­sal boost­ers; Pa­tient death stuns gene ther­a­py field; In­side Tril­li­um’s $2.3B turn­around; and more

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