Third Rock, GV back Broad spin­out Cel­sius in bid to de­vel­op pre­ci­sion meds for au­toim­mune dis­ease

Third Rock is team­ing up with Google’s ven­ture arm to back a gene ther­a­py start­up step­ping out to­day with $65 mil­lion in new mon­ey. As you might ex­pect with GV’s in­volve­ment, the new ven­ture has a tech­nol­o­gy twist, and it might have its hands on some­thing big for the au­toim­mune world.

Vi­jay Kuchroo

Are you ready for a game of buzz­word bin­go? The start­up, called Cel­sius Ther­a­peu­tics, is us­ing new tech in ge­net­ic se­quenc­ing (check) — and a pro­pri­etary ma­chine learn­ing (check) al­go­rithm (check) — to tack­le pre­ci­sion meds (check) for can­cer (check) and au­toim­mune dis­ease. I’ll break that down for you lat­er.

The tech­nol­o­gy the com­pa­ny is built on was li­censed from the Broad In­sti­tute based on the work of Aviv Regev and Vi­jay Kuchroo (both found­ing sci­en­tists at Cel­sius), in­clud­ing non-ex­clu­sive li­cens­es to sin­gle-cell se­quenc­ing tech and ex­clu­sive li­cens­es to ear­ly-stage drug pro­grams.

The com­pa­ny’s co-founder and pres­i­dent, Christoph Lengauer (a Third Rock ven­ture part­ner), tells me Cel­sius has a few things that give it an edge: a mas­sive amount of an­i­mal and hu­man da­ta to work with, a ma­chine-learn­ing al­go­rithm to make sense of that da­ta, and a new tech­nol­o­gy to se­quence sin­gle cells rather than whole genomes.

Our body has tril­lions of cells, each with ge­net­ic in­for­ma­tion stored in­side. The sets of genes vary in dif­fer­ent cell types, de­ter­min­ing a cell’s func­tion — and some­times — the code be­hind dis­ease. Hom­ing in on sin­gle cells could help re­searchers bet­ter un­der­stand the in­di­vid­ual cells and their in­ter­ac­tions that cause dis­ease, per­haps lead­ing to bet­ter ther­a­pies down the road.

When com­par­ing sin­gle cell se­quenc­ing with whole genome se­quenc­ing, Lenguaer used an anal­o­gy about mak­ing smooth­ies with fruit.

“If you put straw­ber­ries and ki­wis in a blender, the col­or of your smooth­ie will be pink be­cause it’s the dom­i­nant cell pop­u­la­tion,” Lengauer said. “Any­thing re­lat­ed to the ki­wi would be lost. That’s whole genome se­quenc­ing. With this anal­o­gy, sin­gle cell se­quenc­ing would al­low you to see the in­di­vid­ual fruits in the smooth­ie. And if some­thing was rot­ten, you could pin­point the in­di­vid­ual fruit that’s gone bad.”

Of course, we’re not talk­ing of straw­ber­ries and ki­wis, but of cells that are caus­ing dis­ease and the genes that trig­ger their mal­func­tion. Cel­sius be­lieves this tech could be the key to bring pre­ci­sion med­i­cines to au­toim­mune dis­eases for the first time.

“Many dis­eases are dri­ven by the com­bined dys­func­tion of sev­er­al spe­cif­ic cell types, and the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween them,” said Regev, the MIT pro­fes­sor who co-found­ed Cel­sius, in a state­ment. “With tra­di­tion­al ge­nom­ic se­quenc­ing, we can­not iden­ti­fy these in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions — we on­ly see the av­er­age and can miss out key crit­i­cal caus­es. But for the first time, with the ap­proach­es dis­cov­ered by our team, where we com­bine mas­sive datasets of un­prece­dent­ed size and com­plex­i­ty with so­phis­ti­cat­ed ma­chine learn­ing al­go­rithms, we are able to dis­tin­guish the spe­cif­ic cells, among many oth­ers, that play a key role in dis­ease and iden­ti­fy the genes that are trig­ger­ing their mal­func­tion. We be­lieve our ap­proach will al­low us to more ef­fi­cient­ly iden­ti­fy spe­cif­ic tar­gets for treat­ing dis­eases in spe­cif­ic pa­tients and ul­ti­mate­ly de­vel­op med­i­cines for those tar­gets.”

Us­ing this ap­proach, the Broad In­sti­tute has un­cov­ered “a hand­ful” of tar­gets in au­toim­mune con­di­tions and can­cer. Lengauer said Cel­sius hopes to reach proof of con­cept in the next five years, and the Se­ries A should take them at least part­way to­ward that goal.

While Third Rock led the re­cent round, GV par­tic­i­pat­ed along with Her­itage Provider Net­work, Cas­din Cap­i­tal, Alexan­dria Ven­ture In­vest­ments and oth­ers.

The com­pa­ny, which has been op­er­at­ing in stealth mode for the past two years, em­ploys 15 peo­ple at its Cam­bridge head­quar­ters in Kendall Square.

Im­age: Aviv Regev, Third Rock part­ner Alex­is Borisy, Christoph Lengauer. Cel­sius Ther­a­peu­tics

UP­DAT­ED: FDA’s golodirsen CRL: Sarep­ta’s Duchenne drugs are dan­ger­ous to pa­tients, of­fer­ing on­ly a small ben­e­fit. And where's that con­fir­ma­to­ry tri­al?

Back last summer, Sarepta CEO Doug Ingram told Duchenne MD families and investors that the FDA’s shock rejection of their second Duchenne MD drug golodirsen was due to some concerns regulators raised about the risk of infection and the possibility of kidney toxicity. But when pressed to release the letter for all to see, he declined, according to a report from BioPharmaDive, saying that kind of move “might not look like we’re being as respectful as we’d like to be.”

He went on to assure everyone that he hadn’t misrepresented the CRL.

But Ingram’s public remarks didn’t include everything in the letter, which — following the FDA’s surprise about-face and unexplained approval — has now been posted on the FDA’s website and broadly circulated on Twitter early Wednesday.

The CRL raises plenty of fresh questions about why the FDA abruptly decided to reverse itself and hand out an OK for a drug a senior regulator at the FDA believed — 5 months ago, when he wrote the letter — is dangerous to patients. It also puts the spotlight back on Sarepta $SRPT, which failed to launch a confirmatory study of eteplirsen, which was only approved after a heated internal controversy at the FDA. Ellis Unger, director of CDER’s Office of Drug Evaluation I, notes that study could have clarified quite a lot about the benefit and risks associated with their drugs — which can cost as much as a million dollars per patient per year, depending on weight.

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2019 Trin­i­ty Drug In­dex Eval­u­ates Ac­tu­al Com­mer­cial Per­for­mance of Nov­el Drugs Ap­proved in 2016

Fewer Approvals, but Neurology Rivals Oncology and Sees Major Innovations

This report, the fourth in our Trinity Drug Index series, outlines key themes and emerging trends in the industry as we progress towards a new world of targeted and innovative products. It provides a comprehensive evaluation of the performance of novel drugs approved by the FDA in 2016, scoring each on its commercial performance, therapeutic value, and R&D investment (Table 1: Drug ranking – Ratings on a 1-5 scale).

How to cap­i­talise on a lean launch

For start-up biotechnology companies and resource stretched pharmaceutical organisations, launching a novel product can be challenging. Lean teams can make setting a launch strategy and achieving your commercial goals seem like a colossal undertaking, but can these barriers be transformed into opportunities that work to your brand’s advantage?
We spoke to Managing Consultant Frances Hendry to find out how Blue Latitude Health partnered with a fledgling subsidiary of a pharmaceutical organisation to launch an innovative product in a
complex market.
What does the launch environment look like for this product?
FH: We started working on the product at Phase II and now we’re going into Phase III trials. There is a significant unmet need in this disease area, and everyone is excited about the launch. However, the organisation is still evolving and the team is quite small – naturally this causes a little turbulence.

Stephen Hahn, AP

The FDA has de­val­ued the gold stan­dard on R&D. And that threat­ens every­one in drug de­vel­op­ment

Bioregnum Opinion Column by John Carroll

A few weeks ago, when Stephen Hahn was being lightly queried by Senators in his confirmation hearing as the new commissioner of the FDA, he made the usual vow to maintain the gold standard in drug development.

Neatly summarized, that standard requires the agency to sign off on clinical data — usually from two, well-controlled human studies — that prove a drug’s benefit outweighs any risks.

Over the last few years, biopharma has enjoyed an unprecedented loosening over just what it takes to clear that bar. Regulators are more willing to drop the second trial requirement ahead of an accelerated approval — particularly if they have an unmet medical need where patients are clamoring for a therapy.

That confirmatory trial the FDA demands can wait a few years. And most everyone in biopharma would tell you that’s the right thing for patients. They know its a tonic for everyone in the industry faced with pushing a drug through clinical development. And it’s helped inspire a global biotech boom.

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Eli Lil­ly’s $1.6B can­cer drug failed to spark even the slight­est pos­i­tive gain for pa­tients in its 1st PhI­II

Eli Lilly had high hopes for its pegylated IL-10 drug pegilodecakin when it bought Armo last year for $1.6 billion in cash. But after reporting a few months ago that it had failed a Phase III in pancreatic cancer, without the data, its likely value has plunged. And now we’re getting some exact data that underscore just how little positive effect it had.

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Am­gen aug­ments Asia foothold by tak­ing over Astel­las joint ven­ture in Japan

California-based Amgen, which does the bulk of its business in the United States, made its ambition to reinvigorate its growth prospects by expanding its presence in Asia clear at the sidelines of the JP Morgan healthcare conference in San Francisco earlier this month.

The Thousand Oaks-based company on Thursday executed its plan to dissolve the joint venture with Astellas — created in 2013 — to operate the unit independently in Japan. With its rapidly aging population, the region represents an appealing market for Amgen’s osteoporosis treatments Prolia and Evenity as well as a cholesterol-lowering injection Repatha.

Daphne Zohar (PureTech)

PureTech bags $200M from sale of Karuna shares — still siz­zling from promis­ing schiz­o­phre­nia da­ta

Cashing in on the exuberance around Karuna Therapeutics and its potential blockbuster CNS drug, PureTech has sold a chunk of the biotech’s shares to Goldman Sachs for $200 million.

Boston-based PureTech had helped Eli Lilly vet Steve Paul launch Karuna and invent its lead program, which combines two old drugs that both act on the muscarinic receptor and balances each other out. Xanomeline, a discard from Lilly, stimulates the M1 and M4 receptors; trospium is an muscarinic receptor antagonist approved to treat overactive bladders.

UP­DAT­ED: New play­ers are jump­ing in­to the scram­ble to de­vel­op a vac­cine as pan­dem­ic pan­ic spreads fast

When the CNN news crew in Wuhan caught wind of the Chinese government’s plan to quarantine the city of 11 million people, they made a run for one of the last trains out — their Atlanta colleagues urging them on. On the way to the train station, they were forced to skirt the local seafood market, where the coronavirus at the heart of a brewing outbreak may have taken root.

And they breathlessly reported every moment of the early morning dash.

In shuttering the city, triggering an exodus of masked residents who caught wind of the quarantine ahead of time, China signaled that they were prepared to take extreme actions to stop the spread of a virus that has claimed 17 lives, sickened many more and panicked people around the globe.

CNN helped illustrate how hard all that can be.

The early reaction in the biotech industry has been classic, with small-cap companies scrambling to headline efforts to step in fast. But there are also new players in the field with new tech that has been introduced since the last of a series of pandemic panics that could change the usual storylines. And they’re volunteering for a crash course in speeding up vaccine development — a field where overnight solutions have been impossible to prove.

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Roche cracks Chi­na's ADC mar­ket open as Kad­cy­la scores its first breast can­cer OK in the coun­try

Roche’s Kadcyla has become the first antibody-drug conjugate to enter the Chinese market, marking a dramatic advance for both the Swiss pharma giant and the therapeutic class.

The local arm of Roche announced the approval late Tuesday, which covers the therapy’s use in the adjuvant setting in patients with early HER-2 positive breast cancer who still have residual invasive disease after receiving paclitaxel and Herceptin as neoadjuvant treatment.