The End­points 11: Here are some of the most promis­ing star­tups in biotech. And Covid-19 is­n't go­ing to stop them

Quite often when I highlight a private, typically early-stage biotech company for these annual awards, I’m asked what I look for in a company. How do you define an Endpoints 11 company?

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There’s a simple enough answer. First, I look for big ideas among the private biotechs which qualify for review, a swing for the fences. I’m drawn to people who are willing to gamble a chunk of their lives on new drug ideas, and in that regard, the stakes here are huge. Drug development is long and hard, and you could easily be wagering 10 or more years of your life on something. So go big or go home if you aren’t planning to do something transformative.

I want a team directing these projects that have the talent, vigor and knowhow to make it happen. Track records are key and earlier failures can be a big plus — depending on how that played out.

People are always more important than money. That’s a mantra of mine that always earns quick nods in any biotech group. But making sure that a company has enough lucre to make it through to proof of concept, and beyond, is also key to the selection process.

Still, you’ll find companies below that raised a few million to get started, and biotechs that appear to have found the key to Fort Knox. So it’s variable.

And then there’s the noise factor. I want to choose companies that can earn widespread recognition for success — or make a hell of a noise if they fail. None of these companies below will slink off to an anonymous midnight burial if they fall short of victory. They’ll make a noise heard throughout the global industry, and we can all learn from it.

This year, with a pandemic raging around the world, I wanted to focus more on culture than particular assets. Each of these biotechs is sorting out the R&D work, but I want to let the execs reflect more on the most important points of starting a company than the specific program goals in mind. Building companies these days takes some newfound ingenuity, and it’s important to share these points with everyone.

There are some other trends you’ll see reflected in the stories below. The intersection of biotech and Big Pharma is taking on a different tone at times, with an eye to assembling large networks of experts to tackle complex problems. And the inflow of billions of dollars of fresh investment capital allows for a new breed of startup conspiring to sire transformative therapies. That’s not cheap, and success is not guaranteed. But it is always fascinating.

Let me sum up here by noting that the biggest healthcare crisis in 100 years has helped make biotech the place to be, fortunately for all of us. These companies aren’t squandering the opportunity. And that deserves a special shout out all on its own.

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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.

J&J’s Rem­i­cade — the poster child for how to block biosim­i­lars — fi­nal­ly set­tles Pfiz­er suit

Biosimilars have proven time and again (although mostly in Europe) that competition works to bring down the cost of a once-pricey biologic, and can even expand its use.

J&J’s Remicade, however, has always proven to be an outlier.

Back in 2016, Pfizer won FDA approval for its infliximab biosimilar, known as Inflectra, but when the launch foundered, the company sued J&J, claiming that the company’s plan to block biosimilar competition worked incredibly well. Pfizer even went on to win FDA approval for a second infliximab biosimilar in 2017, known as Ixifi, but decided to never launch it.

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The clock is tick­ing for Iterum af­ter FDA hands down CRL for Pfiz­er castoff an­tibi­ot­ic

Iterum knew its odds were slim as it awaited an FDA ruling on a key urinary tract infection drug with its bank account running low. The FDA, however, wasn’t impressed, and Iterum’s days look numbered.

The FDA has sent the tiny biotech a complete response letter for the antibiotic sulopenem, shutting down hopes at getting the oral medication across the finish line, the drugmaker revealed Monday.

An­oth­er one bites the dust: Bris­tol My­ers Squibb pulls 'dan­gling' ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval for Op­di­vo in liv­er can­cer

Bristol Myers Squibb has agreed to pull a second-line liver cancer indication for its blockbuster Opdivo as a monotherapy, becoming the second PD-(L)1 indication to bite the dust after the FDA’s oncology adcomm reviewed six “dangling” accelerated approvals in April.

The outside experts voted against two of the six indications discussed at the meeting, including Opdivo as a monotherapy for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) patients who have previously been treated with sorafenib, and Merck’s Keytruda as a third-line treatment for stomach cancer. The adcomm voted 5 to 4 not to maintain Opdivo’s indication, after it failed to show clinical benefit in a confirmatory trial.

Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca CEO (Raphael Lafargue/Abaca/Sipa via AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Fau­ci warns that US is head­ed in wrong di­rec­tion, rec­om­mends boost­er; As­traZeneca-Pfiz­er com­bo proves ef­fec­tive in South Ko­rea

A combination of unvaccinated Americans and the Delta variant has led a frustrated NIAID director Anthony Fauci to say the US is headed in the wrong direction, he said on CNN’s show “State of the Union.”

Booster shots may be required for those with suppressed immune systems and public health officials are considering a mask recommendation for those who are already vaccinated, the Associated Press reported. More than 163 million people are vaccinated, but that number is less than half of the US population. And 57% of those who are eligible for the vaccine have been inoculated.

Seth Lederman, Tonix Pharmaceuticals CEO

Small, strug­gling biotech winds up with a 3X los­er as an­oth­er PhI­II of its lead drug col­laps­es

Little Tonix Pharmaceuticals has run into another brick wall as its lead drug — a reformulated muscle relaxant originally approved 44 years ago — has failed another Phase III study, sending shares back into penny stock territory.

Three years after going down in their first Phase III trial of TNX-102 SL (cyclobenzaprine HCl sublingual tablets) for symptoms of PTSD, the biotech — which had been encouraged by a breakthrough designation at the FDA — reported late Friday the drug also failed its second late-stage challenge for pain associated with fibromyalgia. Outside data monitors recommended the Phase III trial be halted for futility after deciding interim data made it unlikely the drug would pass muster.

Hervé Hoppenot, Incyte CEO (Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News)

FDA un­sur­pris­ing­ly brings down the ham­mer on In­cyte's PD-1 — draw­ing a line for fu­ture ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­provals

It appears the PD-(L)1 honeymoon is finally over.

Incyte $INCY revealed late Friday the FDA has slammed its PD-1 retifanlimab — which was under priority review for locally advanced or metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the anal canal — with a complete response letter, demanding “additional data” to show clinical benefit.

On one hand, the rejection should come as no surprise: Regulators spelled out the problems they saw with Incyte’s data package in no uncertain terms, raising concerns about the low response rates, lack of diversity and dearth of safety data in the single-arm trial. During the ensuing adcomm, the FDA’s cancer czar, Richard Pazdur, suggested the whole episode underscores the need to “reassess” how drugs get approved under the accelerated approval pathway without randomized studies.

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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