Scoop: Google’s GV spear­heads the Spot­light syn­di­cate — back­ing an up­start biotech aimed at ‘de­moc­ra­tiz­ing’ gene edit­ing

CRISPR had no soon­er start­ed to shake the very foun­da­tions of drug de­vel­op­ment be­fore its lim­i­ta­tions be­gan to loom large. Gene edit­ing could change the world — if on­ly you could get around the hur­dles that threat­ened to trip up every pro­gram.

Blake By­ers

So it’s on­ly nat­ur­al to see CRISPR 2.0 tak­ing shape be­fore the pi­o­neers can get the lead ther­a­pies through de­vel­op­ment. And who bet­ter than Google’s GV ven­ture arm to take the lead spot in a small syn­di­cate back­ing some sci­en­tists with their own unique twist on a so­lu­tion?

GV gen­er­al part­ner Blake By­ers took point on this one, join­ing with some in­di­vid­ual in­vestors who are stay­ing in the back­ground. They were all at­tract­ed by the idea that the small team at Spot­light Ther­a­peu­tics could by­pass the de­liv­ery is­sues em­bed­ded in every gene edit­ing pro­gram by us­ing pro­gram­ma­ble CRISPR ri­bonu­cle­o­pro­teins de­signed for in vi­vo cell-tar­get­ed de­liv­ery.

And now the Spot­light team is jump­ing in­to the in­dus­try spot­light with a $30 mil­lion launch round to go af­ter lead pro­grams in he­mo­glo­binopathies and im­muno-on­col­o­gy.

Right now, de­spite all the promise of CRISPR, the pi­o­neers are un­able to ad­dress spe­cif­ic cell types in vi­vo, says CEO Mary Haak-Frend­scho. This new ap­proach of­fers the op­por­tu­ni­ty “to re­al­ly open up, de­moc­ra­tize gene edit­ing.”

Mary Haak-Frend­scho

The tech used to­day de­pends a lot on us­ing an AAV or LNP to ex­press the ed­i­tor in the tar­get cell, says By­ers. Those have bet­ter up­take in liv­er cells, so that’s where the ear­ly play­ers have start­ed. And as we’ve seen at Sol­id and oth­er places, there are lin­ger­ing con­cerns about safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy.

Spot­light, he says, is tak­ing a dif­fer­ent, com­plete­ly non-vi­ral ap­proach. And it starts with a ques­tion.

“Why don’t we bind the RNP (ri­bonu­cle­o­pro­tein) ed­i­tor to oth­er things?” asks By­ers. “That could be oth­er pro­teins, let’s say an an­ti­body. Get an­ti­bod­ies to a tar­get on the cell sur­face, it’s in­ter­nal­ized at some rate, then hitch­hikes in­to the cell and from there ed­it the tar­get site in the genome.”

“There’s a lot of things you can latch your gene ed­i­tors to,” says By­ers. The goal is to ex­plore the space, search­ing for 5 to 10 port­fo­lio prod­ucts bound to dif­fer­ent hitch­hik­er mol­e­cules that you can use to get your ed­i­tor of choice in­to the ex­act cell type you want, with high speci­fici­ty and low cost of goods.

Alex Mar­son

In the process, you have to es­cape de­struc­tion by the lyso­some and go on to the nu­cle­o­some to do the edit­ing, so there’s plen­ty of de­bug­ging along the way to get it to work right.

Much of the in­spi­ra­tion for this work came from 3 key sci­en­tists who are ad­vis­ing the start­up.

Alex Mar­son and Patrick Hsu thought a lot of this out. Mar­son is at UC San Fran­cis­co and Hsu is now close by at UC Berke­ley. Ja­cob Corn at ETH Zürich rounds out the line­up of sci­en­tif­ic founders with pres­ti­gious re­sumes.

Patrick Hsu

The longterm plan is to stick with the non-vi­ral ap­proach and build a pipeline.

As A rounds go these days, $30 mil­lion isn’t a lot of mon­ey, par­tic­u­lar­ly when you’re talk­ing about a tech plat­form ap­proach like this. I point­ed that out to By­ers, who wasn’t feel­ing apolo­getic about the $30 mil­lion.

“How old school of us,” he re­spond­ed, adding that there are dif­fer­ent strate­gies for dif­fer­ent play­ers. Some should be laser fo­cused on prod­uct de­vel­op­ment. Be­sides, he adds, “small mounts of cap­i­tal are very fo­cus­ing for a com­pa­ny.”

Ja­cob Corn

The mon­ey “gets us to 2022,” says the CEO. At that point they ex­pect to have their first de­vel­op­ment can­di­date, with­in a year of the clin­ic for ei­ther or both their cho­sen in­di­ca­tions.

And then they can see about start­ing their own gene edit­ing rev­o­lu­tion.

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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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.

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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Steve Harr, Sana Biotechnology CEO

Four years in, Sana gets first FDA go-ahead to bring can­cer treat­ment in­to the clin­ic

Sana Biotechnology is finally headed to the clinic.

Thursday afternoon, the biotech announced the FDA had cleared its application to start a clinical trial for its allogeneic, or “off-the-shelf,” CAR-T cell therapy targeting the antigen CD19 for patients with B-cell lymphomas and leukemias. Sana said its therapy, dubbed SC291, was designed to evade the immune system, which could help cell therapy produce a more durable response in patients, a concern that has followed such off-the-shelf therapies that use donor cells as opposed to a patient’s own cells.

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Ying Huang, Legend CEO

J&J, Leg­end say Carvyk­ti beat stan­dard ther­a­py in ear­li­er-line blood can­cer

J&J and Legend Biotech’s next step in turning their CAR-T therapy Carvykti into a potential megablockbuster has succeeded, the companies said Friday.

Carvykti achieved the primary endpoint — progression-free survival — in an open-label Phase III study testing the treatment in second- to fourth-line multiple myeloma patients. The CARTITUDE-4 trial, for which there aren’t any hard data yet, represents the biggest development for Carvykti’s ability to compete with Bristol Myers Squibb’s Abecma since its approval last February.

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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CBER Director Peter Marks (Susan Walsh/AP Images)

FDA ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee votes unan­i­mous­ly in fa­vor of bi­va­lent Covid shots re­plac­ing pri­ma­ry se­ries

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

The vote marks an effort to clear up confusion around varying formulations and dosing schedules for current primary series and booster vaccines, as well as “get closer to the strains that are circulating,” according to committee member Paul Offit, professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.