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

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.