Shire spins out mR­NA group to RaNA, which is hatch­ing plans to tack­le cys­tic fi­bro­sis in the clin­ic

Over the last few years, the ex­ec­u­tive crew at Shire has on a few rare oc­ca­sions spot­light­ed their work in mR­NA, tout­ing its po­ten­tial for adding to its fore­cast of bil­lions in new rev­enue. A lit­tle more than two years ago, the re­search arm of the Cys­tic Fi­bro­sis Foun­da­tion con­tributed $15 mil­lion to the ven­ture. But now, with their big merg­er with Bax­al­ta still be­ing worked through, Shire is lat­er­al­ing their mR­NA team — more than a dozen staffers and two key pro­grams — to RaNA Ther­a­peu­tics in ex­change for a chunk of eq­ui­ty.

The Cam­bridge, MA-based RaNA gets two pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams that are poised to en­ter the clin­ic in the near fu­ture, with a shot at launch­ing clin­i­cal pro­grams on cys­tic fi­bro­sis and urea cy­cle dis­or­ders in H1 2018. And RaNA CEO Ron Re­naud is clear­ly pumped about adding a new plat­form to the RNAi com­pa­ny at a time that he is halfway through rais­ing a “sub­stan­tial” amount of cash to back the next stage of de­vel­op­ment work at the biotech.

“What I was most in­trigued by,” Re­naud tells me, “is that this ini­tia­tive was un­der­way in 2008. This is some­thing they have been work­ing on for awhile, build­ing IP, work­ing through all those de­vel­op­ment is­sues to where it is to­day. Hav­ing this new plat­form opens up a vast amount of tar­get space for us.”

Get­ting the group will in­crease RaNA’s head count from 48 to more than 60, says the CEO, giv­ing it a makeover that will fun­da­men­tal­ly al­ter its pro­file.

Re­naud de­clined to say for now how much eq­ui­ty Shire is get­ting, or how much he plans to raise.

For its part, a Shire spokesper­son says the grow­ing com­pa­ny spun out the plat­form as part of an on­go­ing as­sess­ment of what works best in­side, or out­side, Shire.

“From a big pic­ture per­spec­tive,” she adds, “pe­ri­od­i­cal­ly eval­u­at­ing and dis­con­tin­u­ing pro­grams is nec­es­sary to main­tain a ful­ly op­ti­mized pipeline where achiev­ing in­no­va­tion/main­tain­ing fo­cus are the goals….Shire will stay close to RaNA and the MRT Plat­form as Shire re­ceives an eq­ui­ty stake in RaNA and is el­i­gi­ble for fu­ture mile­stones and roy­al­ties on prod­ucts de­vel­oped with the tech­nol­o­gy.”

In a short pe­ri­od, RaNA will jump in­to a po­si­tion where it can start mak­ing a mark in a field that has at­tract­ed in­tense in­ter­est. The near­by biotech Mod­er­na has earned the li­on’s share of the at­ten­tion, and $1.9 bil­lion in back­ing, for their mR­NA work — us­ing mes­sen­ger RNA tech­nol­o­gy to smug­gle in in­struc­tions for cells to make spe­cif­ic ther­a­peu­tic pro­teins. Mod­er­na plans to un­veil more of its pipeline work next week at the big JP Mor­gan con­fab, but it’s still in ear­ly-stage de­vel­op­ment with its lead ef­forts fo­cused on new vac­cines. Cure­Vac in Ger­many has more ad­vanced work on a prostate can­cer vac­cine.

It is ex­treme­ly risky work with lit­tle by way of sol­id clin­i­cal da­ta to prove that you can ac­tu­al­ly do what’s in­tend­ed. On the oth­er hand, RaNA now is close enough be­hind the lead­ers that it can po­si­tion it­self in key fields just as the sec­tor is ei­ther tak­ing off, or count­ing ca­su­al­ties.

Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos (via Getty Images)

With ad­u­canum­ab caught on a cliff, Bio­gen’s Michel Vounatsos bets bil­lions on an­oth­er high-risk neu­ro play

With its FDA pitch on the Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab hanging perilously close to disaster, Biogen is rolling the dice on a $3.1 billion deal that brings in commercial rights to one of the other spotlight neuro drugs in late-stage development — after it already failed its first Phase III.

The big biotech has turned to Sage Therapeutics for its latest deal, close to a year after the crushing failure of Sage-217, now dubbed zuranolone, in the MOUNTAIN study.

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Pascal Soriot (AP Images)

As­traZeneca, Ox­ford on the de­fen­sive as skep­tics dis­miss 70% av­er­age ef­fi­ca­cy for Covid-19 vac­cine

On the third straight Monday that the world wakes up to positive vaccine news, AstraZeneca and Oxford are declaring a new Phase III milestone in the fight against the pandemic. Not everyone is convinced they will play a big part, though.

With an average efficacy of 70%, the headline number struck analysts as less impressive than the 95% and 94.5% protection that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have boasted in the past two weeks, respectively. But the British partners say they have several other bright spots going for their candidate. One of the two dosing regimens tested in Phase III showed a better profile, bringing efficacy up to 90%; the adenovirus vector-based vaccine requires minimal refrigeration, which may mean easier distribution; and AstraZeneca has pledged to sell it at a fraction of the price that the other two vaccine developers are charging.

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Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter Ko­dak de­ba­cle, US lends $1.1B to a syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy com­pa­ny and their big Covid-19, mR­NA plans

In mid-August, as Kodak’s $765 million government-backed push into drug manufacturing slowly fell apart in national headlines, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO Jason Kelly got a message from his company’s government liaison: HHS wanted to know if they, too, might want a loan.

The government’s decision to lend Kodak three quarters of a billion dollars raised eyebrows because Kodak had never made drugs before. But Ginkgo, while not a manufacturing company, had spent the last decade refining new ways to produce materials inside cells and building automated facilities across Boston.

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In fi­nal days at Mer­ck, Roger Perl­mut­ter bets big on a lit­tle-known Covid-19 treat­ment

Roger Perlmutter is spending his last days at Merck, well, spending.

Two weeks after snapping up the antibody-drug conjugate biotech VelosBio for $2.75 billion, Merck announced today that it had purchased OncoImmune and its experimental Covid-19 drug for $425 million. The drug, known as CD24Fc, appeared to reduce the risk of respiratory failure or death in severe Covid-19 patients by 50% in a 203-person Phase III trial, OncoImmune said in September.

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The ad­u­canum­ab co­nun­drum: The PhI­II failed a clear reg­u­la­to­ry stan­dard, but no one is cer­tain what that means any­more at the FDA

Eighteen days ago, virtually all of the outside experts on an FDA adcomm got together to mug the agency’s Billy Dunn and the Biogen team when they presented their upbeat assessment on aducanumab. But here we are, more than 2 weeks later, and the ongoing debate over that Alzheimer’s drug’s fate continues unabated.

Instead of simply ruling out any chance of an approval, the logical conclusion based on what we heard during that session, a series of questionable approvals that preceded the controversy over the agency’s recent EUA decisions has come back to haunt the FDA, where the power of precedent is leaving an opening some experts believe can still be exploited by the big biotech.

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John Maraganore, Alnylam CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Al­ny­lam gets the green light from the FDA for drug #3 — and CEO John Maraganore is ready to roll

Score another early win at the FDA for Alnylam.

The FDA put out word today that the agency has approved its third drug, lumasiran, for primary hyperoxaluria type 1, better known as PH1. The news comes just 4 days after the European Commission took the lead in offering a green light.

An ultra rare genetic condition, Alnylam CEO John Maraganore says there are only some 1,000 to 1,700 patients in the US and Europe at any particular point. The patients, mostly kids, suffer from an overproduction of oxalate in the liver that spurs the development of kidney stones, right through to end stage kidney disease.

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Bob Nelsen (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images)

Bob Nelsen rais­es $800M and re­cruits a star-stud­ded board to build the 'Fox­con­n' of biotech

Bob Nelsen spent his pandemic spring in his Seattle home, talking on the phone with Luciana Borio, the scientist who used to run pandemic preparedness on the National Security Council, and fuming with her about the dire state of American manufacturing.

Companies were rushing to develop vaccines and antibodies for the new virus, but even if they succeeded, there was no immediate supply chain or infrastructure to mass-produce them in a way that could make a dent in the outbreak.

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Ramy Farid, Schrödinger CEO (Schrödinger)

Bris­tol My­ers fronts new Schrödinger al­liance with $55M up­front, ex­pand­ing pre­ci­sion on­col­o­gy pro­file

Bristol Myers Squibb has a new R&D partner, one to which they’re paying a pretty penny to use their discovery platform.

The pharma company is doling out $55 million upfront to Schrödinger $SDGR to work on up to five small molecules, with the potential for $2.7 billion in milestone payments. Schrödinger’s initial targets include HIF-2 alpha and SOS1/KRAS for a type of kidney cancer and KRAS-driven cancers, respectively.

FDA hands Liq­uidia and Re­vance a CRL and de­fer­ral, re­spec­tive­ly, as Covid-19 cre­ates in­spec­tion chal­lenge

Two biotechs said they got turned away by the FDA on Wednesday, in part due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

North Carolina-based Liquidia Technologies was handed a CRL for its lead pulmonary arterial hypertension drug, citing the need for more CMC data and on-site pre-approval inspections, which the FDA hasn’t been able to conduct due to travel restrictions. The agency also deferred its decision on Revance Therapeutics’ BLA for its frown line treatment, because it needs to inspect the company’s northern California manufacturing facility. The action, Revance emphasized, was not a CRL.