Start­up with Johns Hop­kins roots rais­ing $40.5 mil­lion to de­vel­op can­cer me­tab­o­lism drugs

A new on­col­o­gy com­pa­ny spun out of Johns Hop­kins School of Med­i­cine is rais­ing up to $40.5 mil­lion to de­vel­op its plat­form of an­ti­cancer ther­a­pies.

Bar­bara Slush­er

The start­up, found­ed just a year ago, is called Dra­cen Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, and its tech is based on work by Bar­bara Slush­er, a pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­o­gy, and Jonathan Pow­ell, a pro­fes­sor of on­col­o­gy at Johns Hop­kins School of Med­i­cine.

The re­searchers al­tered the struc­ture of an ex­per­i­men­tal drug that en­hanced its abil­i­ty to slip through the blood-brain bar­ri­er. Their re­search was pub­lished in Au­gust 2016 in the Jour­nal of Med­i­c­i­nal Chem­istry, which showed in an­i­mal stud­ies that the al­tered drug struc­ture re­sult­ed in ten times bet­ter drug de­liv­ery to the brains com­pared with the rest of an­i­mals’ bod­ies.

Jonathan Pow­ell

The drug they tweaked is called 6-di­a­zo-5-oxo-L-nor­leucine, or DON for short. It’s been used to shrink ad­vanced tu­mors in clin­i­cal tri­als, but its dam­age to the gas­troin­testi­nal sys­tem pre­vent­ed it from mov­ing for­ward.

“We won­dered whether we could make a safer and more tol­er­a­ble form of DON by en­hanc­ing its brain pen­e­tra­tion and lim­it­ing its ex­po­sure to the rest of the body and, thus, tox­i­c­i­ty,” Slush­er said in a 2016 state­ment.

Dra­cen has an ex­clu­sive agree­ment with Hop­kins and the In­sti­tute of Or­gan­ic Chem­istry and Bio­chem­istry in Prague to li­cense the joint­ly-owned tech and de­vel­op pro­pri­etary drug can­di­dates.

The com­pa­ny is de­vel­op­ing nov­el glu­t­a­mine an­tag­o­nists that work as in­hibitors of can­cer me­tab­o­lism, chok­ing out tu­mors and their nor­mal meta­bol­ic func­tion. The plat­form might al­so have ap­pli­ca­tions in au­toim­mune dis­or­ders, in­flam­ma­to­ry dis­ease and cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem con­di­tions.

Dra­cen’s CEO Tom Es­tok said Dra­cen might be in the clin­ic by 2019.

The com­pa­ny is search­ing for lab and of­fice space in Bal­ti­more, and plans to hire about 12 em­ploy­ees and con­sul­tants,  Es­tok told the Bal­ti­more Busi­ness Jour­nal (which first re­port­ed the news).

Es­tok told BBJ he wasn’t ready to talk about the fi­nanc­ing — and that makes sense, as Dra­cen has on­ly re­port­ed $8.5 mil­lion raised so far of the hope­ful $40.5 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to an SEC state­ment. It’s like­ly far from be­ing wrapped up. Still, the reg­u­la­to­ry form shows nine in­vestors par­tic­i­pat­ed in the round so far. The in­vestors are uniden­ti­fied on the form. How­ev­er, two part­ners from Deer­field are list­ed as di­rec­tors of the com­pa­ny: Jonathan Leff and Robert Jack­son.

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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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.

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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

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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.

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Almost two years after first buying into Genor Biopharma’s pipeline of cancer and autoimmune therapies, Hillhouse Capital has led a $160 million cash injection to push the late-stage assets over the finish line while continuing to fund both internal R&D and dealmaking.

The Series B has landed right around the time Genor would have listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, according to plans reported by Bloomberg late last year. Insiders had said that the company was looking to raise about $200 million.

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Ken Frazier, AP Images

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Nicholas Kartsonis had been running clinical infectious disease research at Merck for almost 2 years when, in mid-January, he got a new assignment: searching the pharma giant’s vast libraries for something that could treat the novel coronavirus.

The outbreak was barely two weeks old when Kartsonis and a few dozen others got to work, first in small teams and then in a larger task force that sucked in more and more parts of the sprawling company as Covid-19 infected more and more of the globe. By late February, the group began formally searching for vaccine and antiviral candidates to license. Still, while other companies jumped out to announce their programs and, eventually and sometimes controversially, early glimpses at human data, Merck remained silent. They made only a brief announcement about a data collection partnership in April and mentioned vaguely a vaccine and antiviral search in their April 28 earnings call.

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Mark Genovese (Stanford via Twitter)

Gilead woos fil­go­tinib clin­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tor from Stan­ford to lead the charge on NASH, in­flam­ma­to­ry dis­eases

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Mark Genovese — a longtime Stanford professor and most recently the clinical chief in the division of immunology and rheumatology — was the principal investigator in FINCH 2, one of three studies that supported Gilead’s NDA filing. In his new role as SVP, inflammation, he will oversee the clinical development of the entire portfolio.

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