Luis Voloch and Noam Solomon (Immunai)

Stan­ford, Park­er In­sti­tute sci­en­tists team up with two young en­gi­neers in $20M AI play with an im­munol­o­gy fo­cus

Al­most a year ago, a group of sci­en­tists at Stan­ford and the Park­er In­sti­tute for Can­cer Im­munother­a­py pub­lished a pa­per in Na­ture Med­i­cine that chal­lenged a com­mon as­sump­tion about where tu­mor fight­ing cells come from: While re­searchers had thought that the role of check­point block­ade was to rein­vig­o­rate T cells al­ready present in the tu­mor, they sug­gest­ed that the vast ma­jor­i­ty ac­tu­al­ly didn’t come from the tu­mor sites at all.

An­su Sat­pa­thy

The find­ing was made pos­si­ble by sin­gle-cell RNA se­quenc­ing tech­nol­o­gy, which cap­tured tens of thou­sands of cells over time and re­vealed that the army of ac­tive T cells could be found in the blood­stream.

Two re­searchers on the team — Stan­ford pathol­o­gy pro­fes­sor An­su Sat­pa­thy and PI­CI se­nior da­ta sci­en­tist Dan­ny Wells — had been ad­vis­ing an AI start­up with a can­cer fo­cus. But with­in a few months, they jumped on board Im­mu­nai as found­ing sci­en­tists and steered it to­ward a slight­ly dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, one tied close­ly with the T cell work.

By build­ing an end-to-end plat­form from sam­ple pro­cess­ing to data­base as­sem­bly to da­ta min­ing for bi­o­log­i­cal in­sights, Im­mu­nai’s ul­ti­mate goal is to map out the en­tire im­mune sys­tem, co-founder and CEO Noam Solomon told End­points News.

The com­pa­ny is now emerg­ing from stealth with $20 mil­lion in a seed round led by Vi­o­la Group and TLV Part­ners.

Solomon was a post­doc at MIT when his friend and even­tu­al busi­ness part­ner, Luis Voloch, got him ex­cit­ed about tran­si­tion­ing from tech to biotech — or tech­bio as they would call it. Voloch, who cut his teeth in ma­chine learn­ing at Palan­tir, is now the chief tech­nol­o­gy of­fi­cer of Im­mu­nai.

Dan­ny Wells

They were par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ed with the com­pu­ta­tion­al con­cept of trans­fer learn­ing, which al­lows one to ap­ply knowl­edge in one area (such as au­toim­mune dis­eases) to an­oth­er (such as can­cer im­munother­a­py).

“That’s why it’s im­por­tant for us to un­der­stand the im­mune sys­tem from the top down,” Voloch said. “It’s on­ly when you look at all these things at once that you can re­al­ly un­der­stand the in­ter­play be­tween these dif­fer­ent cell types and the dif­fer­ent func­tions that these cell types have in dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios.”

For phar­ma part­ners with check­point drugs and cell ther­a­pies in de­vel­op­ment, Im­mu­nai promis­es to an­swer ques­tions about how com­bos might act to­geth­er on dif­fer­ent cells — with an eye for new bio­mark­ers and tar­gets. When it comes to CAR-T and oth­er TCR ther­a­pies, Voloch said, the team can al­so pro­file the drug be­fore in­fu­sion, track­ing per­for­mance by sub­pop­u­la­tion.

“Our first en­deav­or is to un­der­stand mech­a­nisms of the im­mune sys­tem,” Solomon con­clud­ed.

Un­like some of the oth­er AI shops that have popped up in bio­phar­ma, Im­mu­nai is cer­tain it will not step in­to its own drug dis­cov­ery and de­vel­op­ment. Rather, its 30-strong work­force in Tel Aviv, New York and San Fran­cis­co will de­vote all their at­ten­tion to play­ing as­sist in the bio­phar­ma world. Be­yond the ini­tial ap­pli­ca­tions in can­cer, it al­so sees a fu­ture in every­thing from in­fec­tious dis­ease to Alzheimer’s.

“To each dis­ease there is an im­mune com­po­nent,” Solomon added. “Build­ing this wide data­base, this pan-im­mune data­base, we will be able to de­code this com­po­nent.”

BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

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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FDA de­lays de­ci­sion on No­var­tis’ po­ten­tial block­buster MS drug, wip­ing away pri­or­i­ty re­view

So much for a speedy review.

In February, Novartis announced that an application for their much-touted multiple sclerosis drug ofatumumab had been accepted and, with the drug company cashing in on one of their priority review vouchers, the agency was due for a decision by June.

But with June less than 48 hours old, Novartis announced the agency has extended their review, pushing back the timeline for approval or rejection to September. The Swiss pharma filed the application in December, meaning their new schedule will be nearly in line with the standard 10-month window period had they not used the priority voucher.

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Leen Kawas, Athira CEO (Athira)

Can a small biotech suc­cess­ful­ly tack­le an Ever­est climb like Alzheimer’s? Athi­ra has $85M and some in­flu­en­tial back­ers ready to give it a shot

There haven’t been a lot of big venture rounds for biotech companies looking to run a Phase II study in Alzheimer’s.

The field has been a disaster over the past decade. Amyloid didn’t pan out as a target — going down in a litany of Phase III failures — and is now making its last stand at Biogen. Tau is a comer, but when you look around and all you see is destruction, the idea of backing a startup trying to find complex cocktails to swing the course of this devilishly complicated memory-wasting disease would daunt the pluckiest investors.

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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GSK presents case to ex­pand use of its lu­pus drug in pa­tients with kid­ney dis­ease, but the field is evolv­ing. How long will the mo­nop­oly last?

In 2011, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta became the first biologic to win approval for lupus patients. Nine years on, the British drugmaker has unveiled detailed positive results from a study testing the drug in lupus patients with associated kidney disease — a post-marketing requirement from the initial FDA approval.

Lupus is a drug developer’s nightmare. In the last six decades, there has been just one FDA approval (Benlysta), with the field resembling a graveyard in recent years with a string of failures including UCB and Biogen’s late-stage flop, as well as defeats in Xencor and Sanofi’s programs. One of the main reasons the success has eluded researchers is because lupus, akin to cancer, is not just one disease — it really is a disease of many diseases, noted Al Roy, executive director of Lupus Clinical Investigators Network, an initiative of New York-based Lupus Research Alliance that claims it is the world’s leading private funder of lupus research, in an interview.

Covid-19 roundup: Mod­er­na read­ies to en­ter PhI­II in Ju­ly, As­traZeneca not far be­hind; EU ready to ne­go­ti­ate vac­cine ac­cess with $2.7B fund

Moderna may soon add another first to the Covid-19 vaccine race.

In March, the mRNA biotech was the first company to put a Covid-19 vaccine into humans. Next month, they may become the first company to put their vaccine into the large, late-stage trials that are needed to prove whether the vaccine is effective.

In an interview with JAMA editor Howard Bauchner, NIAID chief Anthony Fauci said that a 30,000-person, Phase III trial for Moderna’s vaccine could start in July. The news comes a week after Moderna began a Phase II study that will enroll several hundred people.

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José Basel­ga finds promise in new class of RNA-mod­i­fy­ing can­cer tar­gets, lock­ing in 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams with $55M

Having dived early into some of the RNA breakthroughs of the last decades — betting on Moderna’s mRNA tech and teaming up with Silence on the siRNA front — AstraZeneca is jumping into a new arena: going after proteins that modify RNA.

Their partner of choice is Accent Therapeutics, which is receiving $55 million in upfront payment to steer a selected preclinical program through to the end of Phase I. After AstraZeneca takes over, the Lexington, MA-based startup has the option to co-develop and co-commercialize in the US — and collect up to $1.1 billion in milestones in the long run. The deal also covers two other potential drug candidates.

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Joseph Kim, Inovio CEO (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

Caught in a stand­off with its con­tract man­u­fac­tur­er over Covid-19 vac­cine, In­ovio files suit in an at­tempt to break free while ri­vals race ahead

Inovio was one of the first vaccine developers to snag attention for a jab that their execs said promised to end the Covid-19 pandemic. Using their own unique DNA tech, CEO Joseph Kim said it took just 3 hours to work it out.

But while rivals are racing to the finish line with ambitious plans to make vast quantities of their vaccines with billions of dollars of deals, Inovio is still stuck at the starting line on manufacturing.