Sem­ma steps to­ward the clin­ic af­ter demon­strat­ing ef­fect of po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure in land­mark an­i­mal stud­ies

The re­search team at the well-fund­ed Sem­ma Ther­a­peu­tics has cleared one of the last re­main­ing hur­dles to get­ting a po­ten­tial cure for di­a­betes in­to hu­man stud­ies. And if they’re right, it marks a ma­jor pre­clin­i­cal mile­stone for a resur­gent re­gen­er­a­tive med­i­cine field fo­cused on a new gen­er­a­tion of stem cell ther­a­pies.

Fe­li­cia Pagli­u­ca

Fe­li­cia Pagli­u­ca, VP of cell bi­ol­o­gy re­search and de­vel­op­ment at the Cam­bridge, MA-based biotech, told the 2019 In­ter­na­tion­al So­ci­ety for Stem Cell Re­search meet­ing in LA Sat­ur­day that their stem cell-de­rived islets per­formed as hoped for — pro­duc­ing in­sulin — in a study in­volv­ing non-hu­man pri­mates whose im­mune sys­tems had been flat­tened to pre­vent a re­jec­tion. In a sep­a­rate study in­volv­ing two pigs, a pack­age of these en­gi­neered islets con­tained in a spe­cial­ly de­signed pack­age were used suc­cess­ful­ly to gen­er­ate in­sulin with­out need­ing an im­muno­sup­pres­sant to pro­tect against a re­ac­tion.

“For the first time ever the de­vice pro­tects the cell,” Pagli­u­ca told me in a pre­view of to­day’s ses­sion, of­fer­ing ev­i­dence from a large an­i­mal mod­el that the tech­nol­o­gy func­tions with blood glu­cose lev­els, spurring in­sulin se­cre­tion as need­ed. “They re­al­ly show quite con­sis­tent re­spon­sive­ness.”

And that’s with­out fi­bro­sis, with­out cell suf­fo­ca­tion, while watch­ing the in­te­gra­tion of cell ther­a­py in­to host tis­sue.

Bas­tiano San­na

It’s ex­cit­ing, says Sem­ma CEO Bas­tiano San­na, to see the “cu­ra­tive po­ten­tial” of this cell ther­a­py.

Re­al­ly? A cure? For a mass mar­ket dis­ease like di­a­betes?

If that all seems a bit too won­der­ful to be be­lieved, think about where Pagli­u­ca is com­ing from. Stem cell ther­a­pies had their hey­day well over a decade ago as the next big thing in med­i­cine — an overnight sen­sa­tion which sput­tered out in fail­ure as the sur­vivors went back in­to the lab to do the hard work nec­es­sary to make it a re­al­i­ty. That long pe­ri­od of qui­et bred con­sid­er­able skep­ti­cism, es­pe­cial­ly af­ter the first wave of promised cures failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize. And she’s watched it play out as re­gen­er­a­tive med­i­cine made its come­back.

One of those pi­o­neer­ing sci­en­tists who stayed in the lab was Sem­ma sci­en­tif­ic founder and Har­vard pro­fes­sor Doug Melton, who pub­lished a land­mark study 5 years ago out­lin­ing how he had suc­cess­ful­ly used stem cells to cre­ate in­sulin-pro­duc­ing pan­cre­at­ic be­ta cells that were in­sert­ed in bulk in­to mice and suc­cess­ful­ly pro­tect­ed from an im­mune re­sponse — a break­through in re­gen­er­a­tive med­i­cine. And he’d been work­ing on the cure for more than 20 years, which he start­ed fol­low­ing his son’s di­ag­no­sis of Type 1 di­a­betes. 

They’ve raised $158 mil­lion over 4 years at Sem­ma to get to this stage, stand­ing on the thresh­old of a pair of small hu­man stud­ies set to launch next year. They’ll now see if they can re­pro­duce in hu­mans what they did in the non-hu­man pri­mates and pigs: first by run­ning a small study with an im­muno­sup­pres­sant, fol­lowed by the use of their de­vice in an­oth­er study lat­er next year that will avoid im­muno­sup­pres­sants.

CAR-T and gene ther­a­pies have come along to demon­strate cu­ra­tive po­ten­tial, but the CEO says it’s been frus­trat­ing to see the first wave of these ther­a­pies tar­get­ed at tiny pa­tient pop­u­la­tions. “We’re very ex­cit­ed about bring­ing the cu­ra­tive po­ten­tial of cell ther­a­pies in­to a large in­di­ca­tion.”

They’re tak­ing it step by step.

No­body is rolling out a mass tri­al for Type 2 di­a­betes. The first goal is to go af­ter some of the Type 1 di­a­betes pa­tients who are the hard­est to treat, with nowhere left to turn to rein in the au­toim­mune dis­ease. Af­ter that, they can turn to the broad­er Type 1 pop­u­la­tion be­fore mov­ing on, per­haps in­to par­tic­u­lar sub­groups of Type 2.

Ini­tial­ly, the goal will be to get the islets to do the work need­ed to safe­ly pro­duce in­sulin for these pa­tients at a re­li­able lev­el. These stem cell-de­rived islets will have to be able to be man­u­fac­tured at scale. And there’s work un­der­way to see if there’s a uni­ver­sal cell de­sign that can be used to avoid the need for the de­vice they use — some­thing Melton com­pares to a tea bag.

Lessons for biotech and phar­ma from a doc­tor who chased his own cure

After being struck by a rare disease as a healthy third year medical student, David Fajgenbaum began an arduous journey chasing his own cure. Amidst the hustle of this year’s JP Morgan conference, the digital trials platform Medable partnered with Endpoints Studio to share Dr. Fajgenbaum’s story with the drug development industry.

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation between Medable CEO Dr. Michelle Longmire and Dr. Fajgenbaum, and it is full of lessons for biotech executives charged with bringing the next generation of medicines to patients.

Kathy High (file photo)

Gene ther­a­py pi­o­neer Kathy High has left Spark af­ter com­plet­ing $4.3B union with Roche

Kathy High dedicated the past seven years of her life shepherding experimental gene therapies she’s developed at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia toward the market as president and head of R&D at Spark Therapeutics. Now that the biotech startup is fully absorbed into Roche — with an FDA approval, a $4.3 billion buyout and a promising hemophilia program to boast — she’s ready to move on.

Roche confirmed her departure with Endpoints News and noted “she will take some well-deserved time off and then will begin a new chapter in a sabbatical at a university.”

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Tim Mayleben (file photo)

Es­pe­ri­on's goldilocks cho­les­terol fight­er wins FDA ap­proval — will its 'tra­di­tion­al' pric­ing ap­proach spur adop­tion?

It’s more effective than decades-old statins but not as good as the injectable PCSK9 — the goldilocks treatment for cholesterol-lowering, bempedoic acid, has secured FDA approval.

Its maker, Esperion Therapeutics, is betting that their pricing strategy — a planned list price of between $10 to $11 a day — will help it skirt the pushback the PCSK9 cholesterol fighters, Repatha and Praluent, got from payers for their high sticker prices.

The sky-high expectations for the pair of PCSK9 drugs that were first approved in 2015 quickly simmered — and despite a 60% price cut, coupled with data showing the therapies also significantly cut cardiovascular risk, sales have not really perked up.

Esperion is convinced that by virtue of being a cheaper oral therapy, bempedoic acid will hit that sweet spot in terms of adoption.

“We’re kind of like the old comfortable shoe,” Esperion’s chief commercial officer Mark Glickman remarked in an interview with Endpoints News ahead of the decision date. “It’s an oral product, once-daily and nontitratable — these are things that just resonate so true with patients and physicians and I think we’ve kind of forgotten about that.”

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James Collins, Broad Institute via Youtube

UP­DAT­ED: A space odyssey for new an­tibi­otics: MIT's ma­chine learn­ing ap­proach

Drug development is complex, expensive and comes with lousy odds of success — but in most cases, if you make it across the finish line brandishing a product with an edge (and play your cards right) it can be a lucrative endeavor.

As it stands, the antibiotic market is cursed — it harbors the stink of multiple bankruptcies, a dearth of innovation, and is consequently barely whetting the voracious appetites of big pharma or venture capitalists. Enter artificial intelligence — the biopharma industry’s cure-all for the pesky process of making a therapeutic, including data mining, drug discovery, optimal drug delivery, and addressable patient population.

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Gilead los­es two more patent chal­lenges on HIV pill, set­ting up court­room fight in Delaware

Gilead sustained two more losses in their efforts to rid themselves of an activist-backed patent lawsuit from the US government over a best-selling HIV pill.

Urged on by activists seeking to divert a portion of Gilead’s revenue to clinics and prevention programs, the Department of Health and Human Services made a claim to some of the patents for the best-selling HIV prevention drug, Truvada, also known as PrEP. Gilead responded by arguing in court that HHS’s patents were invalid.

Today, the US Patent and Trademark Office ruled that Gilead was likely to lose the last two of those challenges as well. The USPTO ruled against Gilead on the first two patents earlier this month.

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Tal Zaks (Moderna via YouTube)

For two decades, a new vac­cine tech­nol­o­gy has been slow­ly ap­proach­ing prime time. Now, can it stop a pan­dem­ic?

Two months before the outbreak, Moderna CMO Tal Zaks traveled from Cambridge, MA to Washington DC to meet with Anthony Fauci and the leaders of the National Institutes of Health.

For two years, Moderna had worked closely with NIH researchers to build a new kind of vaccine for MERS, one of the deadliest new viruses to emerge in the 21st century. The program was one test for a new technology designed to be faster, cheaper and more precise than the ways vaccines had been made for over a century. They had gathered evidence the technology could work in principle, and Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a longtime advocate for better epidemic preparedness, wanted to see if it, along with a couple of other approaches, could work in a worst-case scenario: A pandemic.

“[We were] trying to find a test case for how to demonstrate if our technology could rapidly prepare,” Zaks told Endpoints News.

Zaks and Fauci, of course, wouldn’t have to wait to develop a new test. By year’s end, an outbreak in China would short circuit the need for one and throw them into 24/7 work on a real-world emergency. They also weren’t the only ones with new technology who saw a chance to help in a crisis.

An ocean away, Lidia Oostvogels was still on vacation and relaxing at her mother’s house in Belgium when her Facebook started changing. It was days after Christmas and on most people’s feeds, the news that China had reported a novel virus to the World Health Organization blurred into the stream of holiday sweaters and fir trees. But on Oostvogels’s feed, full of vaccine researchers and virus experts, speculation boiled: There was a virus in China, something contained to the country, but “exotic,” “weird,” and maybe having to do with animals. Maybe a coronavirus.

Lidia Oostvogels

“I was immediately thinking like, ‘Hey, this is something that if needed, we can play a role,'” Oostvogels told Endpoints.

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Christos Kyratsous (via LinkedIn)

He built a MERS treat­ment in 6 months and then the best Ebo­la drug. Now Chris­tos Kyrat­sous turns his sights on Covid-19

TARRYTOWN, NY — In 2015, as the Ebola epidemic raged through swaths of West Africa, Kristen Pascal’s roommates sat her down on their couch and staged an intervention.

“Are you sure this is what you want to be doing with your life?” she recalls them asking her.

Special report

Pascal, a research associate for Regeneron, had been coming home at 2 am and leaving at 6 am. At one point, she didn’t see her roommate for a week. For months, that was life in Christos Kyratsous’ lab as the pair led a company-wide race to develop the first drug that could effectively treat Ebola before the outbreak ended. For Pascal, that was worth it.

“I’m ok, I don’t have Ebola,” Pascal told them. “I see that death toll rising and I can’t not do something about it.”

Last August, Regeneron learned they had succeeded: In a large trial across West Africa, their drug, REGN-EB3, was vastly more effective than the standard treatments. It was surprise news for the company, coming just 10 months into a trial they thought would take several years and a major victory in the global fight against a deadly virus that killed over 2,000 in 2019 and can carry a mortality rate of up to 90%.

For Kyratsous and Pascal, though, it brought only fleeting reprieve. Just four months after the NIH informed them REGN-EB3 worked, Kyratsous was back in his office reading the New York Times for updates on a new outbreak on another continent, and wondering alongside Pascal and senior management whether it was time to pull the trigger again.

In late January, as the death toll swelled and the first confirmed cases outside China broke double digits, they made a decision. Soon they were back on the phone with the multiple government agencies and their coronavirus partners at the University of Maryland’s Level 3 bio lab. The question was simple: Can Kyratsous and his team use a process honed over two previous outbreaks, and create a treatment before the newest epidemic ends? Or worse, if, as world health experts fear, it doesn’t vanish but becomes a recurrent virus like the flu?

“Christos likes things immediately,” Matt Frieman, Regeneron’s coronavirus collaborator at the University of Maryland, told Endpoints. “That’s what makes us good collaborators: We push each other to develop things faster and faster.”

Kristen Pascal (Regeneron)

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The first time Regeneron tried to respond to a global outbreak, it was something of a systems test, Kyratsous explains from his office at Regeneron’s Tarrytown headquarters. Kyratsous, newly promoted, has crammed it with photos of his family, sketches of viral vectors and a shark he drew for his 3-year-old son. He speaks rapidly – an idiosyncrasy his press person says has only been aggravated this afternoon by the contents of his “Regeneron Infectious Diseases”-minted espresso glass – and he gesticulates with similar fluidity, tumbling through antibodies, MERS, the novel coronavirus, Ebola-infected monkeys.

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Jim Scholefield via PR Newswire

Mer­ck los­es its chief dig­i­tal of­fi­cer, spot­light­ing tal­ent hunt for the hottest ti­tle in Big Phar­ma

Over the last few years we’ve seen the chief digital officer title become one of the hottest commodities in Big Pharma as global organizations hunt the best talent to sharpen the cutting edge of their tech platforms.

But Merck just discovered how hard it may be to keep them focused on pharma.

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Don't let Ab­b­Vie fool FTC with an easy di­vesti­ture, plead crit­ics in lat­est at­tack on $63B Al­ler­gan buy­out

If the FTC must let AbbVie and Allergan go ahead with their merger, at least make them divest their latest blockbuster on the market, a chorus of unions, consumer groups and public interest organizations plead in a new attempt to rein in the megamerger.

There’s a second part to their argument: If the antitrust watchdog does greenlight the divestiture AbbVie wants, then at least ensure the pharma giant cannot corner its future rivals with its exclusionary tactics.

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