Se­cre­tive? Mod­er­na de­tails its pipeline strat­e­gy at JPM but at least one crit­ic bites back

Stephane Ban­cel, Mod­er­na CEO

Mod­er­na out­lined its pipeline strat­e­gy at JP Mor­gan this week, fo­cus­ing specif­i­cal­ly on five clin­i­cal-stage pro­grams for new vac­cines as a rel­a­tive­ly low-risk ap­proach to demon­strat­ing that their mes­sen­ger RNA tech­nol­o­gy and the plat­form work. But the kick­back didn’t take long to strike, as a per­sis­tent crit­ic at Stat picked at one trou­bled pro­gram while rais­ing ques­tions about the over­all val­ue of an en­try-lev­el ap­proach fo­cused on a high vol­ume, low-mar­gin busi­ness like vac­cines.

Af­ter rais­ing $1.9 bil­lion from a host of deep-pock­et in­vestors and part­ners, the uni­corn biotech has be­come the sub­ject of in­tense in­ter­est, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Boston biotech cir­cles. And Mod­er­na’s re­luc­tance to de­tail its work in the past has left the biotech with a rep among some re­porters as a se­cre­tive, pun­ish­ing place that has seen off a string of staffers who couldn’t main­tain the fren­zied pace.

Mod­er­na CEO Stephane Ban­cel, though, says that at­tack is un­war­rant­ed. His pre­sen­ta­tion at JP Mor­gan is in­tend­ed to shine a light on what the com­pa­ny’s top prospects are as it preps for its first clin­i­cal da­ta.

Ban­cel’s strat­e­gy is sim­ple: In­stead of fo­cus­ing on a sin­gle lead ef­fort, the pri­vate biotech chose to ramp up a full pipeline of clin­i­cal pro­grams. If one fal­ters, oth­ers can step up to make the case that mR­NA is on its way to de­liv­er­ing a new ap­proach to ther­a­peu­tic de­vel­op­ment with a vast ar­ray of po­ten­tial tar­gets.

“Peo­ple are go­ing to re­al­ize one day that mR­NA is a very good way to make med­i­cines,” Ban­cel says. “We are play­ing a very long game, a 10, 20-year game. We are a very in­tense com­pa­ny. We want to get those drugs for pa­tients.” And that means tack­ling dis­eases like Zi­ka with their tech­nol­o­gy.

Mod­er­na went af­ter two pan­dem­ic flu strains ear­ly, says Ban­cel, so in­ves­ti­ga­tors could ac­cu­rate­ly mea­sure an­ti­body re­spons­es among treat­ment naive pa­tients who had nev­er been ex­posed to the virus. In ad­di­tion to Zi­ka there’s an undis­closed pro­gram part­nered with Mer­ck that’s now in the clin­ic and sev­en pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams, in­clud­ing an­oth­er Mer­ck part­ner­ship on a per­son­al­ized can­cer vac­cine.

One of the com­pa­ny’s most promi­nent crit­ics, Stat’s Dami­an Garde, re­port­ed to­day that safe­ty is­sues hob­bled a ther­a­py for Crigler-Na­j­jar syn­drome — part­nered with Alex­ion — which Ban­cel promised a year ago would get in­to the clin­ic in 2016. That safe­ty is­sue, Garde added, raised fresh ques­tions about Mod­er­na’s high-stakes gam­ble on mR­NA, un­der­min­ing its $5 bil­lion val­u­a­tion it has en­joyed while rais­ing a moun­tain of cash.

Ban­cel tells me that a long-an­tic­i­pat­ed move to cash in on their val­u­a­tion through an IPO, though, won’t be hap­pen­ing this year.

“We will not go pub­lic this year,” he tells me. “This has been dis­cussed by the board. 2017 is not the right time. 2016 and ’17 is a crit­i­cal time for the com­pa­ny to move from dis­cov­ery to a de­vel­op­ment com­pa­ny with scale.”

BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

Gilead re­leas­es an­oth­er round of murky remde­sivir re­sults

A month after the NIH declared the first trial on remdesivir in Covid-19 a success, Gilead is out with new results on their antiviral. But although the study met one of its primary endpoints, the data are likely to only add to a growing debate over how effective the drug actually is.

In a Phase III trial, patients given a 5-day dose of remdesivir were 65% more likely to show “clinical improvement” compared to an arm given standard-of-care. The trial, though, gave little indication for whether the drug had an impact on key endpoints such as survival or time-to-recovery. And in a surprising twist, a 10-day dosing arm of remdesivir didn’t lead to a statistically significant improvement over standard of care.

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Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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Ken Frazier, AP Images

Why Mer­ck wait­ed, and what they now bring to the Covid-19 fight

Nicholas Kartsonis had been running clinical infectious disease research at Merck for almost 2 years when, in mid-January, he got a new assignment: searching the pharma giant’s vast libraries for something that could treat the novel coronavirus.

The outbreak was barely two weeks old when Kartsonis and a few dozen others got to work, first in small teams and then in a larger task force that sucked in more and more parts of the sprawling company as Covid-19 infected more and more of the globe. By late February, the group began formally searching for vaccine and antiviral candidates to license. Still, while other companies jumped out to announce their programs and, eventually and sometimes controversially, early glimpses at human data, Merck remained silent. They made only a brief announcement about a data collection partnership in April and mentioned vaguely a vaccine and antiviral search in their April 28 earnings call.

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Len Schleifer (left) and George Yancopoulos, Regeneron (Vimeo)

Eyes on he­mo­phil­ia prize, Re­gen­eron adds a $100M wa­ger on joint de­vel­op­ment cam­paign with In­tel­lia

When George Yancopoulos first signed up Intellia to be its CRISPR/Cas9 partner on gene editing projects 4 years ago, the upstart smartly ramped up its IPO at the same time. Today, Regeneron $REGN is coming back in, adding $100 million in an upfront fee and equity to significantly boot up a whole roster of new development projects.

And they’re highlighting some clinical hemophilia research plans in the process.

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Mark Genovese (Stanford via Twitter)

Gilead woos fil­go­tinib clin­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tor from Stan­ford to lead the charge on NASH, in­flam­ma­to­ry dis­eases

With an FDA OK for the use of filgotinib in rheumatoid arthritis expected to drop any day now, Gilead has recruited a new leader from academia to lead its foray into inflammatory diseases.

Mark Genovese — a longtime Stanford professor and most recently the clinical chief in the division of immunology and rheumatology — was the principal investigator in FINCH 2, one of three studies that supported Gilead’s NDA filing. In his new role as SVP, inflammation, he will oversee the clinical development of the entire portfolio.

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Bris­tol My­ers Squib­b's just-launched MS drug Zeposia makes the cut in key ul­cer­a­tive col­i­tis tri­al

In March, Zeposia became the third oral S1P modulator to secure US approval for multiple sclerosis. Now, the drug has succeeded in a key ulcerative colitis study.

The immunomodulator, akin to others in its class, controls lymphocyte trafficking by limiting the white blood cells to the lymphatic system, in the lymph nodes, and thwarting their ability to jam up lymph nodes — precluding their ability to penetrate the bloodstream and the central nervous system.

Stephen Isaacs, Aduro president and CEO (Aduro)

Once a high fly­er, a stag­ger­ing Aduro is auc­tion­ing off most of the pipeline as CEO Stephen Isaacs hands off the shell to new own­ers

After a drumbeat of failure, setbacks and reorganizations over the last few years, Aduro CEO Stephen Isaacs is handing over his largely gutted-out shell of a public company to another biotech company and putting up some questionable assets in a going-out-of-business sale.

Isaacs —who forged a string of high-profile Big Pharma deals along the way — has wrapped a 13-year run at the biotech with one program for kidney disease going to the new owners at Chinook Therapeutics. A host of once-heralded assets like their STING agonist program partnered with Novartis (which dumped their work on ADU-S100 after looking over weak clinical results), the Lilly-allied cGAS-STING inhibitor program and the anti-CD27 program out-licensed to Merck will all be posted for auction under a strategic review process.

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Hill­house re­casts spot­light on Chi­na's biotech scene with $160M round for Shang­hai-based an­ti­body mak­er

Almost two years after first buying into Genor Biopharma’s pipeline of cancer and autoimmune therapies, Hillhouse Capital has led a $160 million cash injection to push the late-stage assets over the finish line while continuing to fund both internal R&D and dealmaking.

The Series B has landed right around the time Genor would have listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, according to plans reported by Bloomberg late last year. Insiders had said that the company was looking to raise about $200 million.

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