Spun out of George Church's lab, this biotech up­start is map­ping the AAV uni­verse for No­var­tis, Sarep­ta to gaze

In a few days, through a se­ries of video con­fer­ences, gene ther­a­py re­searchers around the world will be pre­sent­ing their lat­est find­ings at the vir­tu­al an­nu­al meet­ing of the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Gene & Cell Ther­a­py. Al­most every dis­cus­sion will fea­ture a top­ic that has been cen­tral to the ex­is­tence of the field but con­tin­ues to per­plex ex­perts as they seek to re­fine the modal­i­ty: the de­liv­ery of a gene to the tis­sue where it’s need­ed to fix dis­ease.

For the first time, a biotech up­start will be pub­licly out­lin­ing their take on the prob­lem — with an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence fla­vor that No­var­tis and Sarep­ta are gob­bling up.

Sea­soned at­ten­dees of AS­GCT would rec­og­nize the team be­hind Dyno Ther­a­peu­tics. Since Er­ic Kel­sic be­gan build­ing the plat­form in 2015 as a post­doc at George Church’s il­lus­tri­ous lab at Wyss In­sti­tute, he’s been mak­ing the rounds at sci­en­tif­ic meet­ings. At Har­vard, his group had demon­strat­ed how — by do­ing high through­put screen­ing on all cap­sid vari­ants of one par­tic­u­lar AAV serotype, mod­el­ing the space with ma­chine learn­ing, and fi­nal­ly build­ing a pro­file of each cap­sid that can be ranked by dif­fer­ent at­trib­ut­es — they could point to syn­thet­ic AAV cap­sid can­di­dates that are su­pe­ri­or to the hand­ful of nat­ur­al vari­ants cur­rent­ly in use.

Alan Crane

“This was by far the best ap­pli­ca­tion that I’d ever seen of AI in bi­ol­o­gy,” Alan Crane, an en­tre­pre­neur part­ner at Po­laris and Dyno’s ex­ec­u­tive chair­man, told End­points News. “It turns out po­ten­tial part­ners were see­ing it the same way, be­cause when Er­ic came to me back in mid-2018, he al­ready had this list of lit­er­al­ly dozens of com­pa­nies that have proac­tive­ly ap­proached him.”

Out of that pool Dyno had picked No­var­tis for a col­lab­o­ra­tion on eye dis­or­ders and Sarep­ta to team up on mus­cle dis­eases. Up­front pay­ments, sup­port, op­tion fees and mile­stones from these two deals could add up to $2 bil­lion, in­clud­ing $40 mil­lion from the re­search phase of the Sarep­ta deal.

Louise Rodi­no-Kla­pac

“We al­ways con­stant­ly try to make sure that we are ahead of the curve in terms of our tech­nol­o­gy and look­ing at next-gen­er­a­tion treat­ments,” Louise Rodi­no-Kla­pac, Sarep­ta’s head of gene ther­a­py, said. “So al­though we’re very hap­py with our cur­rent ap­proach and our cur­rent vec­tor, we’re think­ing about the fu­ture po­ten­tial tech­nolo­gies for oth­er mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phies.”

Cap­sids — the pro­tein shells that en­close ge­net­ic ma­te­r­i­al of a virus — is one of three core com­po­nents need­ed to form a gene ther­a­py, she ex­plained, along­side the trans­gene that’s miss­ing or de­fec­tive in a pa­tient, and a pro­mot­er that turns the gene on in the cell. And small tweaks to the cap­sid can trans­late to pro­found changes in the fi­nal prod­uct’s im­muno­genic­i­ty, man­u­fac­tura­bil­i­ty, ef­fi­cien­cy of de­liv­ery, speci­fici­ty to tar­get cells and pack­age size.

Er­ic Kel­sic

All of these met­rics are tak­en in­to con­sid­er­a­tion on Dyno’s Cap­sidMap plat­form, which takes “the most com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach to map­ping out the AAV uni­verse,” fill­ing the gaps in each galaxy and telling stars from pure void, Kel­sic said.

“We don’t want to im­prove one prop­er­ty but have oth­er things get worse,” a chal­lenge that oth­ers who have at­tempt­ed to solve the prob­lem have faced, he added.

With a new tech­nol­o­gy that promis­es to op­ti­mize vi­ral vec­tors for in­di­vid­ual ap­pli­ca­tions like that, Crane pre­dict­ed the com­pa­ny — which Po­laris seed­ed with a mod­est $9 mil­lion — might nev­er need ad­di­tion­al ven­ture funds.

While Dyno re­tains the op­tion to cre­ate its own ther­a­pies, ex­pect part­ner­ships (and there are more com­ing) to re­main at the cen­ter for a while.

“What I’ve ob­served in the in­dus­try — not on­ly in gene ther­a­py but in all ar­eas — is as com­pa­nies start to move in­to pipelines, they usu­al­ly have to leave the plat­form be­hind,” Crane said.

Much work is to be done. Dyno cur­rent­ly has ca­pac­i­ty to screen hun­dreds of thou­sands to mil­lions of cap­sids and test them both in vit­ro and in vi­vo, but the plan is to scale up the in­fra­struc­ture even fur­ther — both on the ex­per­i­men­tal and the com­pu­ta­tion­al fronts. The head­count is dou­bling from rough­ly 20 while all the ma­chine learn­ing gets moved on­to the cloud.

A can­di­date won’t emerge any time soon, and even when it does ma­te­ri­al­ize it would have to go through rig­or­ous safe­ty test­ing at the part­ners’ own R&D op­er­a­tions — a process that could take an­oth­er one or two years. Still, Kel­sic sees it as the quick­est way to bring their work to pa­tients even while they fig­ure new things out.

“Es­pe­cial­ly when we’re think­ing about tech­nol­o­gy, some­thing George and I talked a lot about when we start­ed this project, it still feels re­al­ly ear­ly days for gene ther­a­py,” he said. “There’s so much po­ten­tial.”

ZS Per­spec­tive: 3 Pre­dic­tions on the Fu­ture of Cell & Gene Ther­a­pies

The field of cell and gene therapies (C&GTs) has seen a renaissance, with first generation commercial therapies such as Kymriah, Yescarta, and Luxturna laying the groundwork for an incoming wave of potentially transformative C&GTs that aim to address diverse disease areas. With this renaissance comes several potential opportunities, of which we discuss three predictions below.

Allogenic Natural Killer (NK) Cells have the potential to displace current Cell Therapies in oncology if proven durable.

Despite being early in development, Allogenic NKs are proving to be an attractive new treatment paradigm in oncology. The question of durability of response with allogenic therapies is still an unknown. Fate Therapeutics’ recent phase 1 data for FT516 showed relatively quicker relapses vs already approved autologous CAR-Ts. However, other manufacturers, like Allogene for their allogenic CAR-T therapy ALLO-501A, are exploring novel lymphodepletion approaches to improve persistence of allogenic cells. Nevertheless, allogenic NKs demonstrate a strong value proposition relative to their T cell counterparts due to comparable response rates (so far) combined with the added advantage of a significantly safer AE profile. Specifically, little to no risk of graft versus host disease (GvHD), cytotoxic release syndrome (CRS), and neurotoxicity (NT) have been seen so far with allogenic NK cells (Fig. 1). In addition, being able to harness an allogenic cell source gives way to operational advantages as “off-the-shelf” products provide improved turnaround time (TAT), scalability, and potentially reduced cost. NKs are currently in development for a variety of overlapping hematological indications with chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-Ts) today, and the question remains to what extent they will disrupt the current cell therapy landscape. Click for more details.

What lured Hal Bar­ron away?; Top FDA minds on ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval re­forms; ‘Dead wrong’ Aduhelm ad blitz; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

Nothing can really compete with Hal Barron’s departure from GlaxoSmithKline as the news of the week, but we do have plenty of original reporting and analysis from the Endpoints team in this edition. Enjoy and have a nice weekend.

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Hal Barron, Endpoints UKBIO20 (Jeff Rumans)

'Al­tos was re­al­ly a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­ni­ty': Hal Bar­ron re­flects on his big move

By all accounts, Hal Barron had one of the best jobs in Big Pharma R&D. He made more than $11 million in 2020, once again reaping more than his boss, Emma Walmsley, who always championed him at every opportunity. And he oversaw a global R&D effort that struck a variety of big-dollar deals for oncology, neurodegeneration and more.

Sure, the critics never let up about what they saw as a rather uninspiring late-stage pipeline, where the rubber hits the road in the Big Pharma world’s hunt for the next big near-term blockbuster, but the in-house reviews were stellar. And Barron was firmly focused on bringing up the success rate in clinical trials, holding out for the big rewards of moving the dial from an average 10% success rate to 20%.

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Graphic: Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

What kind of biotech start­up wins a $3B syn­di­cate, woos a gallery of mar­quee sci­en­tists and re­cruits GSK's Hal Bar­ron as CEO in a stun­ner? Let Rick Klaus­ner ex­plain

It started with a question about a lifetime’s dream on a walk with tech investor Yuri Milner.

At the beginning of the great pandemic, former NCI chief and inveterate biotech entrepreneur Rick Klausner and the Facebook billionaire would traipse Los Altos Hills in Silicon Valley Saturday mornings and talk about ideas.

Milner’s question on one of those mornings on foot: “What do you want to do?”

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Mer­ck wins le­gal bat­tle over in­sur­ance cov­er­age af­ter ran­somware at­tack

Merck has emerged victorious from a years-long legal battle with insurers over the coverage of more than a billion dollars in losses from the malware NotPetya, with a New Jersey Superior Court judge concluding that the responsibility is on insurers to clarify their policies around cyber attacks.

The pharma giant was one of several victims of a global cyber attack back in 2017 that also hit Danish shipping company Maersk, American food company Mondelēz, French construction giant Saint-Gobain and even the systems monitoring the Chernobyl nuclear power stations, Bloomberg reported back in 2019.

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Crit­ics push back on Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion ad blitz to get Medicare to change its Aduhelm rul­ing: 'Dead wrong'

The latest Alzheimer’s Association advertising campaign encourages people to fight.

Not against the disease or for more research or treatments, but against the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. More specifically, CMS’ recent reimbursement decision to only pay for Biogen and Eisai’s controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm for patients in clinical trials.

With CMS’ preliminary decision now in a 30-day comment period, patient advocates’ goal is to convince CMS to reverse its decision with a marketing blitz and public pressure.

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Dan O'Day, Gilead CEO (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Fail­ing to con­firm clin­i­cal ben­e­fit, Gilead pulls 2 ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval in­di­ca­tions for can­cer drug

Gilead recently decided to pull two indications for its cancer drug Zydelig — in relapsed follicular B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (FL) and relapsed small lymphocytic leukemia (SLL) — after failing to complete the confirmatory trials required as part of the accelerated approvals from 2014.

“As the treatment landscape for FL and SLL has evolved, enrollment into the confirmatory study has been an ongoing challenge,” Gilead said in a statement, noting it formally notified the FDA of its decision to voluntarily withdraw these indications.

Richard Pazdur (via AACR)

Time lim­its on ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­provals? FDA's on­col­o­gy chief Rick Paz­dur eyes po­ten­tial re­forms via in­ter­na­tion­al ap­proach­es

The spotlight on the accelerated approval pathway continues to shine bright, with the FDA’s top oncology official writing in an opinion that the pathway may be strengthened with bits and pieces of what other regulators in Europe and elsewhere have done with their expedited approval pathways, such as adding expiration dates for these faster approvals to ensure they confirm clinical benefit in a timely manner.

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Executive Director of the EMA Emer Cooke (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment signs off on strength­en­ing drug reg­u­la­tor's abil­i­ty to tack­le short­ages

The European Parliament on Thursday endorsed a plan to increase the powers of the European Medicines Agency, which will be better equipped to monitor and mitigate shortages of drugs and medical devices.

By a vote of 655 to 31, parliament signed off on a provisional agreement reached with the European Council from last October, in which the EMA will create two shortage steering groups (one for drugs, the other for devices), a new European Shortages Monitoring Platform to facilitate data collection and increase transparency, and on funding for the work of the steering groups, task force, working parties and expert panels that are to be established.

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