Alain Baron (L), Escient CEO and Marcus Boehm, Escient CSO

Thanks to a $77.5M Se­ries B, Escient moves in­to the clin­ic with the first of its sen­so­ry re­cep­tor can­di­dates

A lit­tle over two years af­ter emerg­ing from stealth, Escient Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals is back Mon­day with a new fundrais­ing round and their first clin­i­cal tri­al.

The San Diego-based biotech an­nounced a $77.5 mil­lion Se­ries B and a Phase I/Ib study for their EP547 pro­gram, which is aim­ing to treat the neu­ro­log­i­cal “itch” that can man­i­fest when bile and waste prod­ucts are backed up in the liv­er and kid­neys, re­spec­tive­ly. This would be the first in what CEO Alain Baron hopes is a long line of Mas-re­lat­ed G pro­tein-cou­pled re­cep­tor can­di­dates.

“We should have an IND on av­er­age once every year and a half or so,” Baron said. “So it al­lows us to de­vel­op the val­ue of some of these ear­ly tar­gets and cre­ate op­tion­al­i­ty for us to move the com­pa­ny for­ward in a num­ber of ways, and of course we’ll be da­ta-dri­ven.”

Sanofi’s VC arm and Cowen Health­care In­vest­ments led the round and were joined by new in­vestors Red­mile and Per­cep­tive. All pre­vi­ous in­vestors, in­clud­ing The Col­umn Group, 5AM Ven­tures and Os­age Uni­ver­si­ty Part­ners, pitched in again.

MRG­PRs, a fam­i­ly of GPCRs, have been the fo­cus of Escient since its found­ing, stem­ming from re­search by Johns Hop­kins neu­rol­o­gist and Escient sci­en­tif­ic founder Xinzhong Dong. With­in the MRG­PR um­brel­la are eight sen­so­ry re­cep­tor tar­gets, four of which have been de-or­phaned in the last six years, Baron said, while the re­main­ing four are still be­ing de­cod­ed. Escient ex­pects the tar­gets to serve a wide range of ther­a­peu­tic us­es and has spent the last two years try­ing to un­der­stand every­thing about this fam­i­ly while prep­ping their clin­i­cal pro­grams.

“Each re­cep­tor can be uti­lized with an an­tag­o­nist to treat more than one dis­or­der, so if you think about that, it’s pret­ty daunt­ing if we were to dis­cov­er util­i­ties for all eight,” Baron said. “We could have eight times two, eight times three in­di­ca­tions. We’re go­ing to be very dis­ci­plined in how we do this.”

Escient CSO Mar­cus Boehm, pre­vi­ous­ly the co-founder of the biotech Re­cep­tos that sold to Cel­gene for $7.2 bil­lion in 2015, added that MRG­PRs “each rec­og­nize a unique ag­o­nist, so they clear­ly have a func­tion where they rec­og­nize some­thing in the en­vi­ron­ment, or en­doge­nous­ly, that is unique from one an­oth­er.”

EP547 cen­ters around MRG­PRX4, an itch re­cep­tor trig­gered in cholesta­sis and ure­mia. Though the con­di­tions don’t cause an itch in the typ­i­cal sense, pa­tients’ brains per­ceive the sen­sa­tion of bile leak­age as an itch — caus­ing de­bil­i­tat­ing and even “em­bar­rass­ing” dis­com­fort in some cas­es, Baron said.

From the pa­tient’s per­spec­tive, an even­tu­al ther­a­py would like­ly be a once-a-day pill to an­tag­o­nize the re­cep­tors. Should the drug prove ef­fec­tive, Baron an­tic­i­pates the treat­ment to func­tion sim­i­lar­ly to an an­ti­his­t­a­mine, dra­mat­i­cal­ly re­duc­ing the itch sen­sa­tion on the first ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“It im­proves the qual­i­ty of life for these pa­tients that have re­al­ly un­bear­able itch,” Baron said. “Think about be­ing stung by 100 mos­qui­toes every day and you get a sense of the dis­tur­bance in your life that you would ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The Phase I/Ib tri­al has al­ready be­gun en­rolling, and topline da­ta are ex­pect­ed some­time in the first half of next year. Escient plans to ex­am­ine mul­ti­ple dos­es of the can­di­date in a group of about 100 in­di­vid­u­als di­vid­ed in­to sev­er­al co­horts in a ran­dom­ized, dou­ble-blind, place­bo-con­trolled set­ting.

While that work goes on, the biotech has a sec­ond pro­gram in the works tar­get­ing MRG­PRX2, a mast-cell based re­cep­tor, which could prove as a workaround in dis­eases that are not re­spon­sive to con­ven­tion­al mast-cell sta­bi­liz­ing drugs. And with enough run­way to take them past the lead pro­gram’s Phase II and the lat­ter’s Phase Ib, Baron is ex­cit­ed for what’s to come in this fam­i­ly of tar­gets.

“MRP­GRs are very in­ter­est­ing in that each is amenable to prob­a­bly more than one in­di­ca­tion,” Baron said. “So what we’re try­ing to do is pros­e­cute these re­cep­tors, and ba­si­cal­ly we do so ag­nos­tic to the ther­a­peu­tic area…whether it’s asth­ma, whether it’s der­ma­tol­ogy, whether it’s CNS, whether it’s GI, we’ll pur­sue it.”

The top 100 bio­phar­ma VCs, Bob Brad­way places $2B bet in can­cer, gene edit­ing pi­o­neer's new big idea, 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.

Before diving in, we had some news to share: Endpoints is launching a premium weekly report focusing on all things regulatory. Coverage will be led by our new senior editor, Zachary Brennan, who joins us from POLITICO. Arsalan Arif has more details in his Publisher’s Note.

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Robert Bradway (Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Am­gen snaps up can­cer drug play­er Five Prime, adding PhI­II-ready FGFR2b drug in $2B M&A play

Amgen is making a long-awaited move on the M&A side, buying South San Francisco-based Five Prime $FPRX for close to $2 billion and adding a slate of new cancer drugs to the pipeline.

Amgen is paying $38 a share, putting the deal value at $1.9 billion. The stock closed at $21.26 last night, giving investors a 78% premium.

The jewel in the crown of this deal is bemarituzumab, which Amgen describes as a first-in-class, Phase III-ready anti-FGFR2b antibody. Amgen was drawn to the bargaining table by Five Prime’s mid-stage data on gastric cancer, satisfied by PFS and OS data helping to validate FGFR2b as a target. Amgen researchers will now expand on the R&D program in other epithelial cancers, including lung, breast, ovarian and other cancers.

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UP­DAT­ED: Not 3 weeks af­ter tak­ing Hu­ma­cyte pub­lic, Ra­jiv Shuk­la launch­es an­oth­er blank check com­pa­ny

One of biotech’s earliest SPAC investors is back with another blank-check company, less than a month after his last effort announced its intent to merge.

Rajiv Shukla is intending to take a third lucky winner public with Alpha Healthcare Acquisition III, filing to go public Thursday with a $150 million raise penciled in. The move comes just a couple of weeks after Shukla’s second SPAC said it would jump to Nasdaq in tandem with Laura Niklason’s Humacyte in a $255 million new investment.

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David Liu (Casey Atkins Photography courtesy Broad Institute)

David Liu has a new big idea: pro­teome edit­ing. It could one day shred tau, RAS and some of the worst dis­ease-caus­ing pro­teins

Before David Liu became famous for inventing new forms of gene editing, he was known around academia in part for a more obscure innovation: a Rube Goldberg-esque system that uses bacteria-infecting viruses to take one protein and turn it into another.

Since 2011, Liu’s lab has used the system, called PACE, to dream up fantastical new proteins: DNA base editors far more powerful than the original; more versatile forms of the gene editor Cas9; insecticides that kill insecticide-resistant bugs; enzymes that slide synthetic amino acids into living organisms. But they struggled throughout to master one of the most common and powerful proteins in the biological world: proteases, a set of Swiss army knife enzymes that cut, cleave or shred other proteins in everything from viruses to humans.

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The 2021 top 100 bio­phar­ma in­vestors: As the pan­dem­ic hit and IPOs boomed, VCs swung in­to ac­tion like nev­er be­fore

The global pandemic may have roiled economies, killed hundreds of thousands and throttled entire industries, but the only effect it had on biopharma venture investing was to help turbocharge the field to giddy new heights.

Below you’ll find the new top 100 venture investors in the industry, ranked by the number of deals they were publicly involved in, as tracked by DealForma chief Chris Dokomajilar. The numbers master then calculated the estimated amount of money they put into each deal — divvying up the cash by the number of players — to indicate how they managed their syndicates.

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Bruce Cozadd, Jazz CEO (Jazz Pharmaceuticals)

Jazz CEO Bruce Cozadd cam­paigned for 6 months to buy GW Phar­ma. A 90% pre­mi­um sealed the deal — along with $17.6M in ‘re­ten­tion’ in­cen­tives

Jazz CEO Bruce Cozadd didn’t beat around the bush.

In his first video meeting with GW Pharma chief Justin Gover last July 8, he offered to pay $172 a share to get the company, which had beaten the odds in getting its remarkable cannabinoid drug Epidiolex across the regulatory finish line for epilepsy. GW’s stock closed at $129 that day.

Cozadd had already done his homework on the financing to make sure he could swing it the way he wanted. He just needed to do some due diligence before making the non-binding bid firm.

Paul Hudson, Getty Images

How does Paul Hud­son's $13.5M comp pack­age stack up against oth­er CEOs? He's in the 'first quar­tile'

Paul Hudson arrived at Sanofi like a hurricane, chopping off duds in the pipeline, shaking up the C-suite, striking big M&A deals and jumping into the Covid-19 vaccine race — all in an attempt to reboot a pharma giant notorious for its setbacks.

Now, we’re getting a look at what the CEO brought home in his first year on the job.

When all is said and done, Hudson will have made about $6.7 million in 2020, about $2.5 million of which has already been paid. The bigger figure includes a $2.3 million bonus that’s subject to approval at an April meeting, and another $1.8 million in variable compensation that has yet to be paid.

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An Ar­ray co-founder re-emerges as CEO of a small aca­d­e­m­ic spin­out, look­ing to re­make an old class of can­cer drugs

Tony Piscopio hadn’t worked as a bench scientist in years when, around 2011, he got put in touch with a team at the University of Colorado trying to revitalize an old approach to treating cancer.

Piscopio, who had co-founded Array Biopharma before heading to South Korea to launch a new company, was back in the states, unattached and intrigued. He founded a three-person company with two professors, Xuedong Liu and Gail Eckhardt, and while they worked on the biology side, he returned to his old chemist chair and began drawing up potential compounds on a computer, along with manufacturing processes to make them. Outsourcing companies synthesized or analyzed the results.

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Af­ter three years of courtship (and turn­downs), Mer­ck pounced on the first glance of clin­i­cal da­ta in $1.85B Pan­dion takeover

It’s almost become cliché for biotech executives to talk about the importance of keeping your options open and being prepared to go all the way. But when it comes to negotiating with a giant like Merck, a little patience can indeed go a long way.

Just ask Pandion Therapeutics.

Days ago we already learned that Merck is shelling out $1.85 billion to pick up the biotech and its slate of autoimmune hopefuls. What we didn’t know until the SEC disclosure dropped Thursday is that the deal comes after Pandion turned down two other proposals from Merck over the past three years and held out until the last minute for a sweetened deal.

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