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)

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

The End­points 11: They've got mad mon­ey and huge am­bi­tions. It's time to go big or go home

These days, selecting a group of private biotechs for the Endpoints 11 spotlight begins with a sprint to get ahead of IPOs and the M&A teams at Big Pharma. I’ve had a couple of faceplants earlier this year, watching some of the biotechs on my short list choose a quick leap onto Nasdaq or into the arms of a buyer.

Vividion, you would have been a great pick for the Endpoints 11. I’m sorry I missed you.

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Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis Gene Ther­a­pies? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1,500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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Maureen Hillenmeyer, Hexagon Bio CEO

Hexa­gon Bio rais­es $61M to con­tin­ue ef­forts to turn fun­gi in­to drugs

A year after raising a $47 million launch round, the fungi-loving drug hunters at Hexagon Bio have more than doubled their coffers.

Hexagon announced today that it raised another $61 million for its efforts to design cancer and infectious disease drugs based on insights mined from the DNA in millions of species of fungi. The new financing brings Hexagon’s committed funding to over $108 million.

Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

FDA+ roundup: Bs­U­FA III ready for show­time, court tells FDA to re-work com­pound­ing plan, new guid­ance up­dates and more

The FDA has now spelled out what exactly will be included in the third iteration of Biosimilar User Fee Act (BsUFA) from 2023 through 2027, which similarly to the prescription drug deal, sets fees that industry has to pay for submitting applications, in exchange for firm timelines that the agency must meet.

This latest deal includes several sweeteners for the biosimilar industry, which has yet to make great strides in the US market, with shorter review timelines for safety labeling updates and updates to add or remove an indication that does not contain efficacy data.

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Jean Bennett (Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP Images)

Lux­tur­na in­ven­tor Jean Ben­nett starts a new gene ther­a­py com­pa­ny to tack­le rare dis­eases left be­hind by phar­ma, VCs

A few years ago Jean Bennett found herself in a surprising place for a woman who invented the first gene therapy ever approved in the United States: No one, it seemed, wanted her work.

Bennett, who designed and co-developed Luxturna, approved in 2018 for a rare form of blindness, had kept building new gene therapies for eye diseases at her University of Pennsylvania lab. But although the results in animals looked promising, pharma companies and investors kept turning down the pedigreed ophthalmology professor.

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Blue­bird sends blood dis­or­der drug to FDA for ap­proval; CG On­col­o­gy en­ters col­lab­o­ra­tion with Roche for Tecen­triq

Bluebird bio announced it completed the rolling submission of its BLA to the FDA for betibeglogene autotemcel gene therapy.

The therapy, designed for patients with beta-thalassemia who require regular red blood cell transfusions, was previously granted breakthrough therapy designation for treating transfusion-dependent beta-thalassemia (TDT). If approved, beti-cel will be the first hematopoietic stem cell ex-vivo gene therapy for patients in the US.