Scripps-led con­sor­tium scores $129M NIH grant to work on vac­cine for stub­born HIV

Sci­en­tif­ic ef­fort in­to de­vel­op­ing a vac­cine against the HIV has proved elu­sive, as the virus rapid­ly mu­tates and its out­er spike pro­tein op­er­ates as an in­vis­i­bil­i­ty cloak, al­low­ing it to out­wit the im­mune sys­tem’s de­fen­sive ar­se­nal. On Wednes­day, a con­sor­tium of sci­en­tists led by Scripps Re­search un­veiled a $129 mil­lion grant from the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health (NIH) that will help shep­herd vac­cines — en­gi­neered to com­bat a pletho­ra of HIV strains — in­to the clin­ic.

HIV was once a death sen­tence, but is now con­sid­ered a chron­ic ill­ness. For those al­ready af­flict­ed, an­ti­retro­vi­ral ther­a­py must be tak­en every sin­gle day to sup­press the virus or un­bri­dled repli­ca­tion can over­whelm the im­mune sys­tem and even­tu­al­ly cause AIDS. Dai­ly pills al­so rack up ex­pen­sive bills in the Unit­ed States, with month­ly ex­pen­di­ture on treat­ment hit­ting thou­sands per month — de­pend­ing on the reg­i­men, in­sur­ance provider and re­bates/dis­counts. Then there’s pre­ven­ta­tive treat­ment or PrEP (pre-ex­po­sure pro­phy­lax­is), in which in­di­vid­u­als at high risk for HIV (typ­i­cal­ly men who have sex with men) take med­i­cines dai­ly to low­er their chances of con­tract­ing the in­fec­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the CDC, dai­ly PrEP re­duces the risk of get­ting HIV via sex­u­al in­ter­course by more than 90%.

Still, there are near­ly 37 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing with HIV/AIDS glob­al­ly, ac­cord­ing to World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion fig­ures from 2017, a year which al­so saw 940,000 pa­tients suc­cumb to the dis­ease. Ac­cord­ing to Scripps, de­spite ex­ist­ing pre­ven­tion mea­sures, glob­al­ly 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple ac­quired HIV in 2017 (about one per­son every 15 sec­onds).

Den­nis Bur­ton Scripps Re­search

A key chal­lenge re­searchers face is that one HIV-af­flict­ed per­son can car­ry hun­dreds of thou­sands of vari­ants of the virus at any giv­en point. Scripps’ sci­en­tist Den­nis Bur­ton and his col­leagues ini­ti­at­ed their quest in 2009 when they dis­cov­ered two po­tent an­ti­bod­ies in the blood cells of a woman liv­ing with HIV that ap­peared ca­pa­ble of neu­tral­iz­ing 70% of 162 HIV ref­er­ence strains rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the glob­al epi­dem­ic.

Tak­ing a cue from this find­ing, Bur­ton et al. iden­ti­fied sta­ble re­gions on HIV’s out­er coat that could be tar­get­ed by bn­Abs to de­vel­op im­muno­gens. These mol­e­cules in an­i­mal stud­ies demon­strat­ed the abil­i­ty to con­fer long-last­ing pro­tec­tion against ex­po­sure to mul­ti­ple HIV strains. This work was sup­port­ed by a $77 mil­lion NIH grant which ran out this June.

This new cap­i­tal in­jec­tion will be used to re­fine the im­muno­gens, de­vel­op scal­able man­u­fac­tur­ing ap­pa­ra­tus­es, and test the im­muno­gens in ear­ly-stage hu­man clin­i­cal tri­als. In part­ner­ship with the In­ter­na­tion­al AIDS Vac­cine Ini­tia­tive, the con­sor­tium of re­searchers are set to launch their first hu­man clin­i­cal tri­al this year, Scripps said.

The promise of an HIV vac­cine first be­came ap­par­ent in 2009, when a tri­al in Thai­land test­ed a com­bi­na­tion of two vac­cines. In the tri­al, one vac­cine was giv­en in four dos­es and then “boost­ed” by two dos­es con­tain­ing both vac­cines. The analy­sis showed the group re­ceiv­ing the vac­cine(s) had an in­fec­tion rate 31.2% low­er than the group that re­ceived the place­bo — while this da­ta was not com­pelling enough to make the cut for ap­proval, the lessons of this tri­al are now be­ing used for a va­ri­ety of oth­er ef­forts.

Last year, a study pub­lished in the Lancet jour­nal from a sim­i­lar­ly struc­tured study of­fered en­cour­ag­ing re­sults. Re­searchers from NIH, Har­vard, J&J $JNJ and else­where used the same process of dos­ing a vac­cine and then fol­lowed up the ini­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion with ‘boost­er’ dos­es in non-in­fect­ed pa­tients at low risk of HIV. Da­ta showed the vac­cine reg­i­mens were well tol­er­at­ed and in­duced ro­bust im­mune re­spons­es in healthy in­di­vid­u­als — they are now be­ing test­ed in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa.

So­cial im­age: Shut­ter­stock

Vlad Coric (Biohaven)

In an­oth­er dis­ap­point­ment for in­vestors, FDA slaps down Bio­haven’s re­vised ver­sion of an old ALS drug

Biohaven is at risk of making a habit of disappointing its investors. 

Late Friday the biotech $BHVN reported that the FDA had rejected its application for riluzole, an old drug that they had made over into a sublingual formulation that dissolves under the tongue. According to Biohaven, the FDA had a problem with the active ingredient used in a bioequivalence study back in 2017, which they got from the Canadian drugmaker Apotex.

Francesco De Rubertis

Medicxi is rolling out its biggest fund ever to back Eu­rope's top 'sci­en­tists with strange ideas'

Francesco De Rubertis built Medicxi to be the kind of biotech venture player he would have liked to have known back when he was a full time scientist.

“When I was a scientist 20 years ago I would have loved Medicxi,’ the co-founder tells me. It’s the kind of place run by and for investigators, what the Medicxi partner calls “scientists with strange ideas — a platform for the drug hunter and scientific entrepreneur. That’s what I wanted when I was a scientist.”

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Af­ter a decade, Vi­iV CSO John Pot­tage says it's time to step down — and he's hand­ing the job to long­time col­league Kim Smith

ViiV Healthcare has always been something unique in the global drug industry.

Owned by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer — with GSK in the lead as majority owner — it was created 10 years ago in a time of deep turmoil for the field as something independent of the pharma giants, but with access to lots of infrastructural support on demand. While R&D at the mother ship inside GSK was souring, a razor-focused ViiV provided a rare bright spot, challenging Gilead on a lucrative front in delivering new combinations that require fewer therapies with a more easily tolerated regimen.

They kept a massive number of people alive who would otherwise have been facing a death sentence. And they made money.

And throughout, John Pottage has been the chief scientific and chief medical officer.

Until now.

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Chas­ing Roche's ag­ing block­buster fran­chise, Am­gen/Al­ler­gan roll out Avastin, Her­ceptin knock­offs at dis­count

Let the long battle for biosimilars in the cancer space begin.

Amgen has launched its Avastin and Herceptin copycats — licensed from the predecessors of Allergan — almost two years after the FDA had stamped its approval on Mvasi (bevacizumab-awwb) and three months after the Kanjinti OK (trastuzumab-anns). While the biotech had been fielding biosimilars in Europe, this marks their first foray in the US — and the first oncology biosimilars in the country.

Seer adds ex-FDA chief Mark Mc­Clel­lan to the board; Her­cules Cap­i­tal makes it of­fi­cial for new CEO Scott Bluestein

→ On the same day it announced a $17.5 million Series C, life sciences and health data company Seer unveiled that it had lured former FDA commissioner and ex-CMS administrator Mark McClellan on to its board. “Mark’s deep understanding of the health care ecosystem and visionary insights on policy reform will be crucial in informing our thinking as we work to bring our liquid biopsy and life sciences products to market,” said Seer chief and founder Omid Farokhzad in a statement.

Daniel O'Day

No­var­tis hands off 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams to the an­tivi­ral R&D mas­ters at Gilead

Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day’s new task hunting up a CSO for the company isn’t stopping the industry’s dominant antiviral player from doing pipeline deals.

The big biotech today snapped up 3 preclinical antiviral programs from pharma giant Novartis, with drugs promising to treat human rhinovirus, influenza and herpes viruses. We don’t know what the upfront is, but the back end has $291 million in milestones baked in.

Vas Narasimhan, AP Images

On a hot streak, No­var­tis ex­ecs run the odds on their two most im­por­tant PhI­II read­outs. Which is 0.01% more like­ly to suc­ceed?

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan is living in the sweet spot right now.

The numbers are running a bit better than expected, the pipeline — which he assembled as development chief — is performing and the stock popped more than 4% on Thursday as the executive team ran through their assessment of Q2 performance.

Year-to-date the stock is up 28%, so the investors will be beaming. Anyone looking for chinks in their armor — and there are plenty giving it a shot — right now focus on payer acceptance of their $2.1 million gene therapy Zolgensma, where it’s early days. And CAR-T continues to underperform, but Novartis doesn’t appear to be suffering from it.

So what could go wrong?

Actually, not much. But Tim Anderson at Wolfe pressed Narasimhan and his development chief John Tsai to pick which of two looming Phase III readouts with blockbuster implication had the better odds of success.

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H1 analy­sis: The high-stakes ta­ble in the biotech deals casi­no is pay­ing out some record-set­ting win­nings

For years the big trend among dealmakers at the major players has been centered on ratcheting down upfront payments in favor of bigger milestones. Better known as biobucks for some. But with the top 15 companies competing for the kind of “transformative” pacts that can whip up some excitement on Wall Street, with some big biotechs like Regeneron now weighing in as well, cash is king at the high stakes table.

We asked Chris Dokomajilar, the head of DealForma, to crunch the numbers for us, looking over the top 20 deals for the past decade and breaking it all down into the top alliances already created in 2019. Gilead has clearly tipped the scales in terms of the coin of the bio-realm, with its record-setting $5 billion upfront to tie up to Galapagos’ entire pipeline.

Dokomajilar notes:

We’re going to need a ‘three comma club’ for the deals with over $1 billion in total upfront cash and equity. The $100 million-plus club is getting crowded at 164 deals in the last decade with new deals being added towards the top of the chart. 2019 already has 14 deals with at least $100 million in upfront cash and equity for a total year-to-date of over $9 billion. That beats last year’s $8 billion and sets a record.

Add upfronts and equity payments and you get $11.5 billion for the year, just shy of last year’s record-setting $11.8 billion.

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Part club, part guide, part land­lord: Arie Bellde­grun is blue­print­ing a string of be­spoke biotech com­plex­es in glob­al boom­towns — start­ing with Boston

The biotech industry is getting a landlord, unlike anything it’s ever known before.

Inspired by his recent experiences scrounging for space in Boston and the Bay Area, master biotech builder, investor, and global dealmaker Arie Belldegrun has organized a new venture to build a new, 250,000 square foot biopharma building in Boston’s Seaport district — home to Vertex and a number of up-and-coming biotech players.

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