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.”

Cell and Gene Con­tract Man­u­fac­tur­ers Must Em­brace Dig­i­ti­za­tion

The Cell and Gene Industry is growing at a staggering 30% CAGR and is estimated to reach $14B by 20251. A number of cell, gene and stem cell therapy sponsors currently have novel drug substances and products and many rely on Contract Development Manufacturing Organizations (CDMO) to produce them with adherence to stringent regulatory cGMP conditions. Cell and gene manufacturing for both autologous (one to one) and allogenic (one to many) treatments face difficult issues such as: a complex supply chain, variability on patient and cellular level, cell expansion count and a tight scheduling of lot disposition process. This complexity affects quality, compliance and accountability in the entire vein-to-vein process for critically ill patients.

A lab technician works during research on coronavirus at Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical in Beerse, Belgium, Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (Virginia Mayo/AP Images)

End­points News ranks all 28 play­ers in the Covid-19 vac­cine race. Here's how it stacks up to­day

The 28 players now in or close to the clinical race to get a Covid-19 vaccine over the finish line are angling for a piece of a multibillion-dollar market. And being first — or among the leaders — will play a big role in determining just how big a piece.

Endpoints News writer Nicole DeFeudis has posted a snapshot of all the companies, universities and hospital-based groups now racing through the clinic, ranking them according to their place in the pipeline as well as the latest remarks available on timelines. And we’ll keep this lineup updated right through the end of the year, as the checkered flags start to fall, possibly as early as October.

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Phase III read­outs spell dis­as­ter for Genen­tech’s lead IBD drug

Roche had big plans for etrolizumab. Eyeing a hyper-competitive IBD and Crohn’s market where they have not historically been a player, the company rolled out 8 different Phase III trials, testing the antibody for two different uses across a range of different patient groups.

On Monday, Roche released results for 4 of those studies, and they mark a decided setback for both the Swiss pharma and their biotech sub Genentech, potentially spelling an end to a drug they put over half-a-decade and millions of dollars behind.

Bayer's Marianne De Backer with Endpoints founder John Carroll, Endpoints@JPM20 (Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News)

UP­DAT­ED: Hunt­ing a block­buster, Bay­er forges an $875M-plus M&A deal to ac­quire women’s health biotech

Bayer has dropped $425 million in cash on its latest women’s health bet, bringing a UK biotech and its non-hormonal menopause treatment into the fold.

KaNDy Therapeutics had its roots in GlaxoSmithKline, which spun out several neuroscience drugs into NeRRe Therapeutics back in 2012. Five years later the team created a new biotech to focus solely on NT-814 — which they considered “one of the few true innovations in women’s health in more than two decades.”

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Eric Shaff (Seres)

UP­DAT­ED: Af­ter a 4-year so­journ, strug­gling mi­cro­bio­me pi­o­neer Seres claims a break­out PhI­II come­back. And shares re­spond in fren­zied spike

Almost exactly 4 years ago, Seres Therapeutics $MCRB experienced one of those soul-crunching failures that can raise big questions about a biotech’s future. Out front in their pursuit of a gut punch to C. difficile infection (CDI), the Phase II test was a flat failure, and investors wiped out a billion dollars of equity value that never returned in the years that followed.

Seres, though, pressed ahead, changing out CEOs a year ago — bidding Merck vet Roger Pomerantz farewell from the C suite — and pushing through a Phase III, hoping that amping up the dosage would make the key difference. And this morning, they unveiled a claim that they had aced the Phase III and positioned themselves for a run at a landmark FDA OK.

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Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (via YouTube)

Bio­gen scores a pri­or­i­ty re­view for its Alzheimer's drug ad­u­canum­ab, mov­ing one gi­ant leap for­ward in its con­tro­ver­sial quest

Biogen scored a big win at the FDA today as regulators accepted their application for the controversial Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab and gave it a priority review.

The PDUFA date is March 7, 2021.

Significantly, Biogen says it did not use its priority review voucher to win special treatment at the FDA. The agency handed that out gratis.

That’s the ideal scenario Biogen was looking for as disappointed analysts wondered aloud about the delayed application earlier in the year.

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Robert Gould, Fulcrum Therapeutics CEO

Ful­crum stum­bles in PhII of old GSK drug, send­ing shares tum­bling

Investors are selling off shares of Fulcrum Therapeutics $FULC after their lead drug failed in a Phase II trial.

The company, founded three years ago on new research techniques such as CRISPR screening, isolated a gene called DUX4 they believed to have a central role in facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, where patients’ muscle dies and is replaced by fat. And to target it, they licensed a GlaxoSmithKline drug that had failed as a cardio drug.

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Eisai moves to 200 Metro Blvd. by late 2021 (ON3)

Ei­sai is cre­at­ing a new US cor­po­rate, R&D HQ in Roche’s old Nut­ley, NJ cam­pus

Eight years after Roche pulled up stakes from Nutley, NJ in a major R&D reorganization, Japan’s Eisai is moving its US corporate and research hub into their old campus.

Now the ON3 property, Eisai — a longtime Biogen partner focused on neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s — will bring together a staff of up to 1,200 employees. And execs are pitching the move to the New Jersey campus as a cultural game-changer.

Lig­and scoops up Pfenex for up to $516M, adding pro­teins to their an­ti­body chick­ens and de­liv­ery tech

The technology hunting folks over at Ligand Pharmaceuticals have picked up a new one from across town, for a significant price.

Ligand has acquired fellow San Diego-based biotech Pfenex and their protein expression platform for $438 million cash, plus $78 million in contingent value agreements should an undisclosed milestone be hit before the end of next year.  The deal pays $12 per share, or $4.34 more than what Pfenex had been trading at before the announcement.