‘There was a grow­ing weari­ness’: Rush­ing against a pan­dem­ic clock, As­pen Neu­ro­science se­cures $70M Se­ries A

Howard Federoff

Just be­fore Christ­mas­time, Howard Federoff got a tip from Wash­ing­ton: There was a new virus in Chi­na. And this one could be bad.

News re­port of the virus had not yet ap­peared. Federoff, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, was briefed be­cause years be­fore, he was vet­ted as part of a group — he didn’t give a name for the group — to con­sult for the US gov­ern­ment on emerg­ing sci­en­tif­ic is­sues. His day job, though, was CEO of As­pen Neu­ro­science, a Parkin­son’s cell ther­a­py start­up that days be­fore had come out of stealth mode and gave word to in­vestors they were hop­ing to raise $70 mil­lion. That, Federoff re­al­ized, would be dif­fi­cult if a pan­dem­ic shut down the glob­al econ­o­my.

“I start­ed think­ing rather ear­ly on…There might be some­thing on the hori­zon that we don’t ful­ly un­der­stand,” Federoff told End­points News. “We knew that if some­thing did change, it could change rather quick­ly.”

Op­er­at­ing with in­sight and knowl­edge oth­er biotechs lacked ac­cess to, Federoff went in­to over­drive try­ing to close be­fore Covid-19 hit the US, and he emerged to­day with $70 mil­lion in Se­ries A fund­ing led by Or­biMed. The oth­er in­vestors in­clud­ed Fra­zier Health Part­ners, Sam Alt­man and ARCH Ven­ture Part­ners, the VC whose leader Robert Nelsen be­came one of the ear­li­est and most promi­nent voic­es call­ing for change.

”We’ve had long con­ver­sa­tions,” Federoff said of him and Nelsen.

With the Se­ries A, Federoff has con­vinced A-list in­vestors to back one ver­sion of a long-sought so­lu­tion to Parkin­son’s. As­pen will use stem cells grown from Parkin­son’s pa­tients’ own skin tis­sue to grow dopamine neu­rons that can be im­plant­ed in­to the brain and hope­ful­ly re­place the de­gen­er­at­ing neu­rons. The idea has been around for decades, with the first trans­plant oc­cur­ring in the 80s, but it was nev­er scaleable. The tech­nol­o­gy to pro­duce stem cells on de­mand didn’t ex­ist.

The com­pa­ny has a ri­val in Blue­Rock, which us­es donor stem cells and which Bay­er ac­quired in Au­gust at a val­u­a­tion of $1 bil­lion.

Over the win­ter, though, the in­vestor hunt be­came less about pitch­ing the sci­ence — which Federoff says every­one agreed was promis­ing — than about beat­ing the clock and in­vestors’ ris­ing wor­ries about the econ­o­my. He pre­pared to work fast, turn­ing an ear­ly meet­ing with Fra­zier at the JP Mor­gan Health­care Con­fer­ence in­to a piv­otal one. As the months passed, he phoned in­vestors mul­ti­ple times a day to keep fund­ing on track.

“They were al­ready in from the stand­point of the sci­ence,” Federoff said. “I could tell that there was a grow­ing weari­ness about whether all that they had pre­vi­ous­ly con­sid­ered as part of their own re­spec­tive port­fo­lios out­side of As­pen would all be pos­si­ble.”

The mon­ey he se­cured will help fund their Phase I tri­al on Parkin­son’s and a sec­ond pro­gram that us­es a form of gene ther­a­py to im­plant stem cells that have a ge­net­ic mark­er for Parkin­son’s edit­ed out. The plan had been to start a tri­al in 2021, but Federoff knows there are no more guar­an­tees.

“At this time it’s not clear what Covid-19 will do to pro­jec­tions,” he said.

Bio­mark­er 'roadmap­s' and the fu­ture of can­cer R&D; Cur­tain rais­es on #AS­CO22; Pfiz­er, No­var­tis tack­le drug ac­cess; 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.

While this was not a week for earth-shattering news, there were certainly a lot of interesting tidbits. If you found this recap helpful, please recommend it to your friends and colleagues. We’ll see you on the other side of the long weekend.

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Keep­ing pres­sure on Am­gen, Mi­rati draws mixed re­views on lat­est cut of KRAS da­ta

As the close runner-up to Amgen’s Lumakras in the KRAS race, any data cut from Mirati’s adagrasib continues to draw scrutiny from analysts. And the latest batch of numbers from ASCO is a decidedly mixed bag.

While a quick comparison suggests that adagrasib spurred slightly more responses and led to a longer overall survival than Lumakras among a group of non-small cell lung cancer patients, its duration of response appears shorter and the safety profile continues to spark concern.

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Ann is one of ViiV Healthcare's newest spokespeople as the retired school administrator speaks up about her HIV status.

GSK's Vi­iV de­buts next evo­lu­tion in HIV med Dova­to cam­paign with new spokes­peo­ple and new mes­sage

When Ann saw the first TV commercials for HIV medicine Dovato, she didn’t see herself represented. So the 74-year-old retired school administrator who’s been living with HIV since 1998, reached out to GSK’s ViiV Healthcare and asked why not?

Now Ann is one of three people starring in ViiV’s latest Dovato campaign called “Detect This.” The next-step evolution in the branded campaign plays on the word “detect” — often used in describing HIV status under control as undetectable — but in this case, uses the word as a directive for people to understand they can use fewer medicines.

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Tran­si­tion to new Eu­ro­pean clin­i­cal tri­als in­fo sys­tem starts slow­ly

At the end of January, the European Medicines Agency officially launched its new clinical trials info system (CTIS), although the migration to the new platform has only really just begun, and sponsors have until the end of January 2023 before all initial trial applications must be submitted through CTIS.

Overall, 56 clinical trial applications have been submitted in CTIS during the first 3 months since the launch of the system on Jan. 31, according to new data posted by the EMA. By comparison, about 4,000 new trials are authorized each year across Europe.

Switzer­land to de­stroy over 600,000 ex­pired dos­es of Mod­er­na Covid vac­cine

As concerns related to uptake and distribution continue to linger, Switzerland is among the first countries that plans to destroy hundreds of thousands of expired and unused Covid-19 vaccine doses.

The European country said it plans to destroy more than 600,000 doses of Moderna’s Spikevax Covid-19 vaccine as the doses have reached their expiration date.

However, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that he’s in the process of throwing 30 million doses in the garbage, exclaiming, “We have a big demand problem.”

Nassim Usman, Catalyst Biosciences CEO

Af­ter $60M Ver­tex deal, group of Cat­a­lyst share­hold­ers claims biotech could’ve sold as­sets three years ago

Catalyst Biosciences was down to five employees in March, and the biotech needed to do something after two rounds of layoffs, a nixed collaboration and a culling of its hemophilia program.

In came Vertex, with $60 million to buy up the South San Francisco biotech’s preclinical complement drugs, which target the system that bridges the body’s innate and adaptive immune response and a class most known for Ultomiris and Soliris. The deal includes CB 2782-PEG, the dry AMD drug that Biogen no longer wanted in March.

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Lina Khan, FTC chair (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP Images)

Pile-on over PBMs con­tin­ues with FTC com­ments and a new bi­par­ti­san Sen­ate bill

More than 500 stakeholders sent comments to the FTC on whether the commission should look further into pharma middlemen, known as PBMs, with many of the commenters calling for more federal oversight.

Similar to the critical open comment period in a deadlocked FTC session last February, pharmacies and pharmacy groups are continuing to call out the lack of transparency among the top 3 PBMs, which control about 80% of the market.

Pharma brands are losing their shine with US consumers who are now thinking about the economy and inflation instead of Covid. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Phar­ma brands fade in an­nu­al Har­ris con­sumer vis­i­bil­i­ty poll: Mod­er­na drops off and Pfiz­er dips

As Covid-19 concerns are fading in the US, so is biopharma visibility. The annual Axios Harris Poll survey to determine and rank the 100 most top-of-mind brands in the US finds Moderna, which was No. 3 last year, not on the list at all for 2022, and Pfizer sinking 37 spots.

However, it’s not that Moderna or Pfizer did anything wrong, it’s just that Americans have moved on to other worries beyond Covid.

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HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Images)

HHS fin­ish­es off Trump-era rule that would've erased ba­sic FDA regs with­out fre­quent re­views

HHS on Thursday finalized its decision to withdraw a rule, proposed just before former President Donald Trump left office, that would’ve caused thousands of HHS and FDA regulations to automatically expire if they weren’t reviewed within two years, and every 10 years thereafter.

The decision follows the filing of a lawsuit last March, in which several nonprofits alleged that the outgoing administration planted “a ticking timebomb” for HHS, essentially forcing it to devote an enormous amount of resources to the unprecedented and infeasible task of reviewing thousands of regulations regularly.