Swiss biotech rais­es $16M to test 'un­de­liv­ery mech­a­nis­m' for rare liv­er dis­ease

The process is grind­ing and of­ten ter­mi­nal, like a fine car with a trans­mis­sion patched up a dozen times but still jam­ming and in dire need of re­place­ment. Pa­tients with late-stage chron­ic liv­er dis­ease will de­com­pen­sate (lose or­gan func­tion) and though that in­stance can be treat­ed, each time is like an­oth­er jolt on the gears. Even­tu­al­ly, the car won’t dri­ve. There are trans­plants, but over half of the pa­tients die wait­ing for those.

Meri­am Kab­baj

A new method from Swiss biotech Ver­san­tis wouldn’t cure chron­ic liv­er dis­ease but it promis­es to give far bet­ter im­me­di­ate care and of­fer a treat­ment for a cou­ple rare forms of liv­er dis­ease that cur­rent­ly leave pa­tients with­out good op­tions short of a trans­plant. The com­pa­ny just took in $16 mil­lion in Se­ries B fund­ing to put its plat­form through first-in-hu­man and ef­fi­ca­cy tri­als in small sub­sets of a dis­ease that kills around 2 mil­lion world­wide very year.

“This is a very dis­rup­tive tech­nol­o­gy,” Ver­san­tis co-founder and COO Meri­am Kab­baj told End­points News. “Liv­er dis­ease is on­ly grow­ing and cause many deaths year af­ter year and so far there haven’t been any ef­fi­cient treat­ments.”

Vince Forster

Ver­san­tis’s plat­form works by tak­ing a pop­u­lar and well-re­searched drug de­liv­ery method called li­po­somes and turn­ing it on its head, to cre­ate what CEO Vince Forster called an “un­de­liv­ery mech­a­nism”: Rather than de­liv­er­ing drugs, it takes out tox­ins. Two liters of liq­uid filled with “mi­croscav­engers” — their VS-01 drug — would be ad­min­is­tered in­to a pa­tient’s bel­ly. The scav­engers would swoop up am­mo­nia and oth­er tox­ins the liv­er can no longer me­tab­o­lize, and then the so­lu­tion is sim­ply tak­en out.

“What we can pro­vide is the same ef­fi­cien­cy as dial­y­sis,” Kab­baj said, “but the main dif­fer­ence is that it’s much safer and it can be im­ple­ment­ed very ear­ly on.”

Al­though liv­er dis­ease is one of the most com­mon in the de­vel­oped world, Ver­san­tis cur­rent­ly fo­cus­es on niche ar­eas with­in it: de­com­pen­sat­ed liv­er cir­rho­sis that has caused a form of di­min­ished brain func­tion called he­pat­ic en­cephalopa­thy and acute-on-chron­ic liv­er fail­ure, the more se­vere dis­ease for which they’ve re­ceived FDA or­phan drug sta­tus in 2017. A Phase I tri­al they say promis­es some ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta is just un­der­way and the Se­ries B mon­ey will fund a Phase IIa tri­al.

Ver­san­tis is not the on­ly com­pa­ny get­ting in­to the rapid­ly grow­ing liv­er game. An­oth­er young Swiss biotech, Alen­tis, got near­ly as much in March for their Se­ries A fund­ing while Bel­gium’s Promethera Bio­sciences col­lect­ed $44 mil­lion in May for end-stage liv­er dis­ease, among oth­ers. The area can be a mine­field, though. Last year, Vi­tal Ther­a­pies saw its stock fall 88% to $0.70 af­ter its plat­form to treat acute liv­er dis­ease bombed a Phase III tri­al.

But Kab­baj ar­gued that Ver­san­tis had an edge be­cause un­like oth­er treat­ments, its mi­croscav­engers re­move not just am­mo­nia but oth­er tox­ic metabo­lites. And it’s not on­ly the liv­er. Oth­er parts of the body, in­clud­ing the brain and kid­neys, which al­so see tox­ic buildup from liv­er dis­ease, ben­e­fit as well.

Ver­san­tis is al­so look­ing at broad­er ap­pli­ca­tions for the drug, in­clud­ing for broad­er forms of liv­er dis­ease, for a con­di­tion in in­fants that caus­es po­ten­tial­ly fa­tal buildups in am­mo­nia and, fur­ther down, for treat­ing opi­od over­dos­es.

Swiss­canto In­vest by Zürcher Kan­ton­al­bank led the fi­nanc­ing , Es­per­ante Ven­tures and new pri­vate in­vestors. Redalpine HealthE­quity and Zürcher Kan­ton­al­bank Start-up Fi­nance, both ex­ist­ing in­vestors,  al­so par­tic­i­pat­ed in this round.

So­cial im­age left to right: Vince Forster, So­phie Biguenet, Rekha John­son, Meri­am Kab­baj (Ver­san­tis)

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.

Lat­est news on Pfiz­er's $3B+ JAK1 win; Pacts over M&A at #JPM22; 2021 by the num­bers; Bio­gen's Aduhelm reck­on­ing; The sto­ry of sotro­vimab; and more

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For those of you who attended #JPM22 in any shape or form, we hope you had a fruitful time. Regardless of how you spent the past hectic week, may your weekend be just what you need it to be.

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A $3B+ peak sales win? Pfiz­er thinks so, as FDA of­fers a tardy green light to its JAK1 drug abroc­i­tinib

Back in the fall of 2020, newly crowned Pfizer chief Albert Bourla confidently put their JAK1 inhibitor abrocitinib at the top of the list of blockbuster drugs in the late-stage pipeline with a $3 billion-plus peak sales estimate.

Since then it’s been subjected to serious criticism for the safety warnings associated with the class, held back by a cautious FDA and questioned when researchers rolled out a top-line boast that their heavyweight contender had beaten the champ in the field of atopic dermatitis — Dupixent — in a head-to-head study.

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Robert Califf, FDA commissioner nominee (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Rob Califf ad­vances as Biden's FDA nom­i­nee, with a close com­mit­tee vote

Rob Califf’s second confirmation process as FDA commissioner is already much more difficult than his near unanimous confirmation under the Obama administration.

The Senate Health Committee on Thursday voted 13-8 in favor of advancing Califf’s nomination to a full Senate vote. Several Democrats voted against Califf, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Maggie Hassan. Several other Democrats who aren’t on the committee, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, also said Thursday that they would not vote for Califf. Markey, Hassan and Manchin all previously expressed reservations about the prospect of Janet Woodcock as an FDA commissioner nominee too.

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Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard)

Bio­gen vows to fight CM­S' draft cov­er­age de­ci­sion for Aduhelm be­fore April fi­nal­iza­tion

Biogen executives made clear in an investor call Thursday they are not preparing to run a new CMS-approved clinical trial for their controversial Alzheimer’s drug anytime soon.

As requested in a draft national coverage decision from CMS earlier this week, Biogen and other anti-amyloid drugs will need to show “a meaningful improvement in health outcomes” for Alzheimer’s patients in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to get paid for their drugs, rather than just the reduction in amyloid plaques that won Aduhelm its accelerated approval in June.

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CRO own­er pleads guilty to ob­struct­ing FDA in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to fal­si­fied clin­i­cal tri­al da­ta

The co-owner of a Florida-based clinical research site pleaded guilty to lying to an FDA investigator during a 2017 inspection, revealing that she falsely portrayed part of a GlaxoSmithKline pediatric asthma study as legitimate, when in fact she knew that certain data had been falsified, the Department of Justice said Wednesday.

Three other employees — Yvelice Villaman Bencosme, Lisett Raventos and Maytee Lledo — previously pleaded guilty and were sentenced in connection with falsifying data associated with the trial at the CRO Unlimited Medical Research.

Susan Galbraith, AstraZeneca EVP, Oncology R&D

Can­cer pow­er­house As­traZeneca rolls the dice on a $75M cash bet on a buzzy up­start in the on­col­o­gy field

After establishing itself in the front ranks of cancer drug developers and marketers, AstraZeneca is putting its scientific shoulder — and a significant amount of cash — behind the wheel of a brash new upstart in the biotech world.

The pharma giant trumpeted news this morning that it is handing over $75 million upfront to ally itself with Scorpion Therapeutics, one of those biotechs that was newly birthed by some top scientific, venture and executive talent and bequeathed with a fortune by way of a bankroll to advance an only hazily explained drug platform. And they are still very much in the discovery and preclinical phase.

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‘Skin­ny la­bels’ on gener­ics can save pa­tients mon­ey, re­search shows, but re­cent court de­ci­sions cloud fu­ture

New research shows how generic drug companies can successfully market a limited number of approved indications for a brand name drug, prior to coming to market for all of the indications. But several recent court decisions have created a layer of uncertainty around these so-called “skinny” labels.

While courts have generally allowed generic manufacturers to use their statutorily permitted skinny-label approvals, last summer, a federal circuit court found that Teva Pharmaceuticals was liable for inducing prescribers and patients to infringe GlaxoSmithKline’s patents through advertising and marketing practices that suggested Teva’s generic, with its skinny label, could be employed for the patented uses.

A patient in Alaska receiving an antibody infusion to prevent Covid hospitalizations in September. All but one of these treatments has been rendered useless by Omicron (Rick Bowmer/AP Images)

How a tiny Swiss lab and two old blood sam­ples cre­at­ed one of the on­ly ef­fec­tive drugs against Omi­cron (and why we have so lit­tle of it)

Exactly a decade before a novel coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, Davide Corti — a newly-minted immunologist with frameless glasses and a quick laugh — walked into a cramped lab on the top floor of an office building two hours outside Zurich. He had only enough money for two technicians and the ceiling was so low in parts that short stature was a job requirement, but Corti believed it’d be enough to test an idea he thought could change medicine.

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