Sen­ti sci­en­tif­ic co-founder Wil­son Wong de­signs the SUPRA — a new, high per­for­mance mod­el CAR-T

Wil­son Wong, one of the sci­en­tif­ic co-founders be­hind Tim­o­thy Lu’s new syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy start­up Sen­ti, has de­signed a new CAR-T that he be­lieves has the po­ten­tial to over­come some of the big is­sues that con­tin­ues to plague the first gen­er­a­tion of drugs now on the mar­ket.

And he’s tricked it out with some in­ter­est­ing new fea­tures.

The Boston Uni­ver­si­ty T-cell en­gi­neer — work­ing with grad­u­ate stu­dent Jang Hwan Cho and MIT’s Jim Collins, a leg­end in syn­thet­ic bio cir­cles and a men­tor to Lu — pub­lished a pa­per in Cell to­day out­lin­ing their work on the re­design, which Sen­ti will now see if it can guide to­ward the clin­ic.

Jim Collins

Work­ing with mouse mod­els, Wong de­vised a CAR he’s dubbed the SUPRA —  which stands for split, uni­ver­sal and  pro­gram­ma­ble. The cen­tral part of its promise is that the re­vised CAR-T is built to go af­ter two mark­ers for the dis­ease, vast­ly im­prov­ing its chance of ex­tend­ing the use of these drugs in­to hard-to-hit sol­id tu­mors while im­prov­ing the speci­fici­ty of the drug to can­cer tis­sue.

It’s al­so a cus­tomiz­able ap­proach, with bet­ter built-in con­trol fea­tures that can be used to go af­ter spe­cif­ic types of blood can­cer and sol­id tu­mors.

“What’s nice,” he tells me, “is that you need two sig­nals to turn on the T cells, not one mag­ic bul­let. The can­cer mark­er can be less spe­cif­ic, re­ly­ing on the in­ter­sec­tion of the two.”

The oth­er key in­gre­di­ent is an added adap­tive mol­e­cule which can be in­clud­ed with the treat­ment to guide the T cells to can­cer cells. With­out these adap­tive mol­e­cules, the T cell won’t be ac­ti­vat­ed, he says. And as they’re cleared even­tu­al­ly, you can add a fresh sup­ply to en­gi­neer a fresh re­sponse to a cho­sen tar­get.

Add it up and you gain a ba­sic on/off switch that can be used to fine tune the ac­tiv­i­ty of the ther­a­py to con­trol tox­i­c­i­ty, pre­vent­ing the kind of over­ac­tiv­i­ty that can launch a dan­ger­ous re­ac­tion in pa­tients. And you can more eas­i­ly spur a fol­lowup re­sponse to pre­vent re­laps­es.

It’s pre­clin­i­cal, which means there’s still plen­ty of work that would need to be done be­fore it could be test­ed in a hu­man. How long?

Maybe two years, says the sci­en­tist, “but you nev­er know.”

The first two CAR-Ts on the mar­ket, Yescar­ta and Kym­ri­ah, work ac­cord­ing to a sim­ple de­sign plan, tak­ing pa­tient cells, en­gi­neer­ing them with a chimeric anti­gen re­cep­tor, and then un­leash­ing a swarm to at­tack can­cer cells.

But it’s lim­it­ed, and not just by the tox­i­c­i­ty of an un­con­trolled re­ac­tion. The first gen­er­a­tion pa­tients are al­so ex­posed to re­laps­es as the ac­tiv­i­ty wears down, and adding a new half-mil­lion dol­lar ther­a­py isn’t fea­si­ble.

The long-term plan is to cre­ate an off-the-shelf ther­a­py with uni­ver­sal fea­tures for each can­cer type, and the re­searchers now are ze­ro­ing in on the types of can­cers which are most like­ly to re­spond to the two-tar­get de­sign.

The grand idea here is that Wong wants to build a “pros­thet­ic im­mune sys­tem,” a mas­ter con­trol tech­nol­o­gy that could pro­vide a new sys­tem that would gov­ern the im­mune re­sponse to any dis­ease, which would have a pow­er­ful and ob­vi­ous role to play on reg­u­la­to­ry T cells that sup­press an im­mune re­sponse as well as in au­toim­mune dis­eases like rheuma­toid arthri­tis. 

That’s a sub­stan­tial­ly big­ger vi­sion than the work on CAR-T 2.0. But these steps fol­low a longer path for Wong that he’s keen to ex­plore.

Im­age: Wil­son Wong. BOSTON UNI­VER­SI­TY

Drug man­u­fac­tur­ing gi­ant Lon­za taps Roche/phar­ma ‘rein­ven­tion’ vet as its new CEO

Lonza chairman Albert Baehny took his time headhunting a new CEO for the company, making it absolutely clear he wanted a Big Pharma or biotech CEO with a good long track record in the business for the top spot. In the end, he went with the gold standard, turning to Roche’s ranks to recruit Pierre-Alain Ruffieux for the job.

Ruffieux, a member of the pharma leadership team at Roche, spent close to 5 years at the company. But like a small army of manufacturing execs, he gained much of his experience at the other Big Pharma in Basel, remaining at Novartis for 12 years before expanding his horizons.

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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UP­DAT­ED: Leg­end fetch­es $424 mil­lion, emerges as biggest win­ner yet in pan­dem­ic IPO boom as shares soar

Amid a flurry of splashy pandemic IPOs, a J&J-partnered Chinese biotech has emerged with one of the largest public raises in biotech history.

Legend Biotech, the Nanjing-based CAR-T developer, has raised $424 million on NASDAQ. The biotech had originally filed for a still-hefty $350 million, based on a range of $18-$20, but managed to fetch $23 per share, allowing them to well-eclipse the massive raises from companies like Allogene, Juno, Galapagos, though they’ll still fall a few dollars short of Moderna’s record-setting $600 million raise from 2018.

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As it hap­pened: A bid­ding war for an an­tibi­ot­ic mak­er in a mar­ket that has rav­aged its peers

In a bewildering twist to the long-suffering market for antibiotics — there has actually been a bidding war for an antibiotic company: Tetraphase.

It all started back in March, when the maker of Xerava (an FDA approved therapy for complicated intra-abdominal infections) said it had received an offer from AcelRx for an all-stock deal valued at $14.4 million.

The offer was well-timed. Xerava was approved in 2018, four years after Tetraphase posted its first batch of pivotal trial data, and sales were nowhere near where they needed to be in order for the company to keep its head above water.

David Meline (file photo)

Mod­er­na’s new CFO took a cut in salary to jump to the mR­NA rev­o­lu­tion­ary. But then there’s the rest of the com­pen­sa­tion pack­age

David Meline took a little off the top of his salary when he jumped from the CFO post at giant Amgen to become the numbers czar at the upstart vaccines revolutionary Moderna. But the SEC filing that goes with a major hire also illustrates how it puts him in line for a fortune — provided the biotech player makes good as a promising game changer.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with the base salary: $600,000. Or the up-to 50% annual cash bonus — an industry standard — that comes with it. True, the 62-year-old earned $999,000 at Amgen in 2019, but it’s the stock options that really count in the current market bliss for all things biopharma. And there Meline did well.

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Covid-19 roundup: Ab­b­Vie jumps in­to Covid-19 an­ti­body hunt; As­traZeneca shoots for 2B dos­es of Ox­ford vac­cine — with $750M from CEPI, Gavi

Another Big Pharma is entering the Covid-19 antibody hunt.

AbbVie has announced a collaboration with the Netherlands’ Utrecht University and Erasmus Medical Center and the Chinese-Dutch biotech Harbour Biomed to develop a neutralizing antibody that can treat Covid-19. The antibody, called 47D11, was discovered by AbbVie’s three partners, and AbbVie will support early preclinical work, while preparing for later preclinical and clinical development. Researchers described the antibody in Nature Communications last month.

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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Bris­tol My­ers is clean­ing up the post-Cel­gene merg­er pipeline, and they’re sweep­ing out an ex­per­i­men­tal check­point in the process

Back during the lead up to the $74 billion buyout of Celgene, the big biotech’s leadership did a little housecleaning with a major pact it had forged with Jounce. Out went the $2.6 billion deal and a collaboration on ICOS and PD-1.

Celgene, though, also added a $530 million deal — $50 million up front — to get the worldwide rights to JTX-8064, a drug that targets the LILRB2 receptor on macrophages.

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Mer­ck wins a third FDA nod for an­tibi­ot­ic; Mereo tack­les TIG­IT with $70M raise in hand

Merck — one of the last big pharma bastions in the beleaguered field of antibiotic drug development — on Friday said the FDA had signed off on using its combination drug, Recarbrio, with hospital-acquired bacterial pneumonia and ventilator-associated bacterial pneumonia. The drug could come handy for use in hospitalized patients who are afflicted with Covid-19, who carry a higher risk of contracting secondary bacterial infections. Once SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind Covid-19, infects the airways, it engages the immune system, giving other pathogens free rein to pillage and plunder as they please — the issue is particularly pertinent in patients on ventilators, which in any case are breeding grounds for infectious bacteria.