Ralph Mechoulam. EPM via YouTube

Start­up EPM launch­es, high off cannabi­noid acid in­no­va­tion

When Sue Sis­ley opened the first bag of her Wash­ing­ton-li­censed weed, she knew some­thing was wrong. It came with the verisimil­i­tude of gov­ern­ment cheese, a bu­reau­crat­ic knock-off that nei­ther looked nor smelled like the re­al thing.

“It was this green pow­der with lit­tle sticks and leaves,” Sis­ley, head of the Scotts­dale Re­search Group, told End­points News ear­li­er this month.”So di­lut­ed.”

Sue Sis­ley

Two years ago, Sis­ley gained ap­proval for a PhII study on the ef­fects of mar­i­jua­na on vet­er­ans with PTSD. Since the 1960s, though, the DEA has on­ly al­lowed one lab in the coun­try, at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­sis­sip­pi, to grow mar­i­jua­na. That meant that when Sis­ley and oth­er re­searchers be­gan some of the first mod­ern stud­ies on med­ical mar­i­jua­na, they were forced to use a prod­uct that looks more like oregano than weed. Al­so, it ap­peared to be moldy.

It was just one of sev­er­al prob­lems that have plagued cannabis re­search and kept the drug in­dus­try from fol­low­ing the stri­dent changes in the na­tion­al view of a once-taboo drug. More broad­ly, re­search in­to mar­i­jua­na and de­riv­a­tives such as cannabi­noids has suf­fered from a lack of pre­ci­sion: The un­der­ly­ing prob­lem be­hind the gov­ern­ment weed is that weed doesn’t come with a stan­dard dose of THC, or stan­dard­ized at all, as you’d want for a drug tri­al. And cannabi­noids might have more pre­ci­sion, but they’re plant ex­tracts — not the chem­i­cal com­pounds the FDA and drug com­pa­nies want for clin­i­cal tri­als.

Which is why Raphael Me­choulam, the 88-year-old Is­raeli “grand­fa­ther” of cannabis re­search, was so ex­cit­ed about the launch of the start­up EPM yes­ter­day and the sig­na­ture tech­nol­o­gy he helped pro­duce: The dis­til­la­tion, sta­bi­liza­tion and in­dus­tri­al-lev­el pro­duc­tion of cannabi­noid acids, the po­tent mol­e­cules that give rise to the plant’s psy­chotrop­ic ef­fects and that, com­pa­ny founders say, could move soon to the clin­ic.

“Here we have a new fam­i­ly of cannabi­noid that are prob­a­bly par­al­lel or even bet­ter than CBD it­self,” he told End­points.

Reshef Swisa

Me­choulam and CEO Reshef Swisa are care­ful to dis­tance them­selves from the plant and re­search done di­rect­ly on its con­sump­tion. But at its root, the point of the new mol­e­cules is to un­lock for the clin­ic the leaf and oil based ef­fects ad­vo­cates have boast­ed about for years and that orig­i­nal­ly drove Me­choulam to start study­ing mar­i­jua­na in the ear­ly 1960s, when as a young re­searcher at the Re­hovot-based Weiz­man In­sti­tute, he man­aged to con­vince a lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cer to il­le­gal­ly hand him five ki­los of Lebanese hashish and then prompt­ly car­ried the pun­gent par­cel from the sta­tion to his lab on a crowd­ed bus of pas­sen­gers ask­ing “What the hell is this smell?”

Me­choulam’s re­search then was to dis­till the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in mar­i­jua­na, THC. This new sci­ence goes a cou­ple steps fur­ther, iso­lat­ing and sta­bi­liz­ing the acids that give rise to cannabi­noids in the first place.

The prob­lem with look­ing in­to these acids has al­ways been that while they ap­pear on the plant alive, they dis­ap­pear off the plant it­self as it be­gins to dry. This earned them the movie-style moniker “the mys­tery com­pounds,” Swisa told End­points. You could smoke weed your whole life with­out en­coun­ter­ing them.

But by tak­ing the acid from the plant and us­ing a par­tic­u­lar es­ter, EPM re­searchers were able to sta­bi­lize it, cre­at­ing a po­tent com­pound they can take in­to the lab as you would ibupro­fen. Swisa said they’ve spo­ken with the FDA, and their prod­uct would be treat­ed not as cannabis, with­out all its at­ten­dant rules and stig­mas, but as any oth­er drug in de­vel­op­ment.

“You can look at this com­pound as in­spired by cannabis,” Swisa said. “But it is a se­mi-syn­thet­ic com­pound.”

The im­pli­ca­tions are about as man­i­fold as the wild promise med­i­c­i­nal weed has some­times held, and on­ly tri­als will tell what in­di­ca­tions bear fruit. EPM has done re­search on hu­man cells and rats in­to the com­pounds’ ef­fect on IBD, skin dis­eases and meta­bol­ic dis­eases, find­ing sim­i­lar rates of ef­fec­tive­ness to steroids and oth­er drugs with­out the steep side ef­fects those drugs can bring. They hope to move in­to the clin­ic on a cou­ple in­di­ca­tions soon.

But the crux is that this puts the drug in a form — dis­crete, patentable and con­sis­tent — that makes them at­trac­tive to phar­ma, Swisa said. They hope to li­cense their prod­uct out to oth­er phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, and he not­ed that there was en­thu­si­as­tic in­ter­est when they pre­sent­ed the re­sults Mon­day in LA — but then again, they were pre­sent­ing at a cannabis con­fer­ence.

“Peo­ple chas­ing our re­searchers; peo­ple fol­low­ing them; peo­ple com­ing to ask what can be done; peo­ple com­ing to our booths, ask­ing ques­tions, see­ing what we can do and how we can col­lab­o­rate,” he said. “The in­ter­est is big.”

The field is in­deed hot right now de­spite on­go­ing con­cerns from some re­searchers, in­clud­ing Me­choulam, that the pub­lic is em­brac­ing CBD be­fore it’s been prop­er­ly test­ed. Re­sults from Sis­ley’s tri­al are forth­com­ing; oth­er tri­als are un­der­way or al­ready back with pos­i­tive re­sults and sci­en­tists are now mak­ing ef­forts to bio­engi­neer THC through CRISPR. This morn­ing, the EU OK’d a cannabis-based epilep­sy drug al­ready ap­proved by the FDA.

But for a re­searcher who’s been in the game as long as Me­choulam, there still aren’t enough clin­i­cal tri­als and there’s a bit­ter­sweet tinge to some of these new pro­nounce­ments. Me­choulam’s lab con­duct­ed a small clin­i­cal tri­al on CBD and epilep­sy in 1980, find­ing it all but elim­i­nat­ed seizures in 4 of 8 pa­tients and curbed them in three hours. But it was decades be­fore any­one took up that work.

“This was a pity,” Me­choulam said. “We could have saved thou­sands of pa­tients, in par­tic­u­lar chil­dren.”

How one start­up fore­told the neu­ro­science re­nais­sance af­ter '50 years of shit­show'

In the past couple of years, something curious has happened: Pharma and VC dollars started gushing into neuroscience research.

Biogen’s controversial new Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm has been approved on the basis of removing amyloid plaque from the brain, but the new neuro-focused pharma and biotechs have much loftier aims. Significantly curbing or even curing the most notorious disorders would prove the Holy Grail for a complex system that has tied the world’s best drug developers in knots for decades.

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Bob Bradway, Amgen CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Am­gen bel­lies back up to the M&A ta­ble for an­oth­er biotech buy­out, this time with a $2.5B deal for an an­ti­body play­er fo­cused on PS­MA

Five months after Amgen CEO Bob Bradway stepped up to the M&A table and acquired Five Prime for $1.9 billion, following up with the smaller Rodeo acquisition, he’s gone back in for another biotech buyout.

This time around, Amgen is paying $900 million cash while committing up to $1.6 billion in milestones to bag the privately held Teneobio, an antibody drug developer that has expertise in developing new bispecifics and multispecifics. In addition, Amgen cited Teneobio’s “T-cell engager platform, which expands on Amgen’s existing leadership position in bispecific T-cell engagers by providing a differentiated, but complementary, approach to Amgen’s current BiTE platform.”

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Ryan Watts, Denali CEO

De­nali slips as a snap­shot of ear­ly da­ta rais­es some trou­bling ques­tions on its pi­o­neer­ing blood-brain bar­ri­er neu­ro work

Denali Therapeutics had drummed up considerable hype for their blood-brain barrier technology since launching over six years ago, hype that’s only intensified in the last 14 months following the publications of a pair of papers last spring and proof of concept data earlier this year. On Sunday, the South San Francisco-based biotech gave the biopharma world the next look at in-human data for its lead candidate in Hunter syndrome.

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Why is On­col­o­gy Drug De­vel­op­ment Re­search Late to the Dig­i­tal Bio­mark­ers Game?

During the recent Annual ASCO Meeting, thousands of cancer researchers and clinicians from across the globe joined together virtually to present and discuss the latest findings and breakthroughs in cancer research and care. There were more than 5000+ scientific abstracts presented during this event, yet only a handful involved the use of motion-tracking wearables to collect digital measures relating to activity, sleep, mobility, functional status, and/or quality of life. Although these results were a bit disappointing, they should come as no surprise to those of us in the wearable technology field.

Art Levinson (Calico)

Google-backed Cal­i­co dou­bles down on an­ti-ag­ing R&D pact with Ab­b­Vie as part­ners ante up $1B, start to de­tail drug tar­gets

Seven years after striking up a major R&D alliance, AbbVie and Google-backed anti-aging specialist Calico are doubling down on their work with a joint, $1 billion commitment to continuing their work together. And they’re also beginning to offer some details on where this project is taking them in the clinic.

According to their statement, each of the two players is putting up $500 million more to keep the labs humming.

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Busi­ness­es and schools can man­date the use of Covid-19 vac­cines un­der EUAs, DOJ says

As public and private companies stare down the reality of the Delta variant, many are now requiring that their employees or students be vaccinated against Covid-19 prior to attending school or to returning or starting a new job. Claims that such mandates are illegal or cannot be used for vaccines under emergency use authorizations have now been dismissed.

Setting the record straight, the Department of Justice on Monday called the mandates legal in a new memo, even when used for people with vaccines that remain subject to EUAs.

Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO (Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP Images)

BioN­Tech is spear­head­ing an mR­NA vac­cine de­vel­op­ment pro­gram for malar­ia, with a tech trans­fer planned for Africa

Flush with the success of its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, BioNTech is now gearing up for one of the biggest challenges in vaccine development — which comes without potential profit.

The German mRNA pioneer says it plans to work on a jab for malaria, then transfer the tech to the African continent, where it will work with partners on developing the manufacturing ops needed to make this and other vaccines.

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No­var­tis reshuf­fles its wild cards; Tough sell for Bio­gen? Googling pro­teins; Ken Fra­zier's new gig; 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.

If you enjoy the People section in this report, you may also want to check out Peer Review, my colleagues Alex Hoffman and Kathy Wong’s comprehensive compilation of comings and goings in biopharma.

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Andrea Pfeifer, AC Immune CEO (AC Immune)

Look­ing to repli­cate Covid-19 suc­cess in neu­ro, BioN­Tech back­ers bet on AC Im­mune and its new­ly-ac­quired Parkin­son's vac­cine

The German billionaires behind BioNTech have found a new vaccine project to back.

Through their family office Athos Service, twin brothers Thomas and Andreas Strüngmann are leading a $25 million private placement into Switzerland’s AC Immune — which concurrently announced that it’s shelling out $58.7 million worth of stock to acquire Affiris’ portfolio of therapies targeting alpha-synuclein, including a vaccine candidate, for Parkinson’s disease.