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

Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

Roivant par­lays a $450M chunk of eq­ui­ty in biotech buy­out, grab­bing a com­pu­ta­tion­al group to dri­ve dis­cov­ery work

New Roivant CEO Matt Gline has crafted an all-equity upfront deal to buy out a Boston-based biotech that has been toiling for several years now at building a supercomputing-based computational platform to design new drugs. And he’s adding it to the Erector set of science operations that are being built up to support their network of biotech subsidiaries with an eye to growing the pipeline in a play to create a new kind of pharma company.

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The fu­ture of mR­NA, J&J's vac­cine ad­comm, Mer­ck­'s $1.85B au­toim­mune bet and more

Welcome to the third installment of 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 this report was helpful in recapping it all for you, please do share it with your colleagues.

Get ready for FDA’s third Covid-19 vaccine

On the heels of a ringing endorsement from FDA reviewers earlier in the week, J&J‘s single-dose vaccine — which proved 66% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19, and 85% effective at stopping severe disease 28 days after administration — the advisory committee convened by the agency voted unanimously to recommend its emergency use authorization. It was “a relatively easy call,” according to one of the committee members — although that doesn’t mean they didn’t have questions. Jason Mast has the highlights from the discussion, including new information from the company, on this live blog.

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Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

Steve Cutler, Icon CEO (Icon)

In the biggest CRO takeover in years, Icon doles out $12B for PRA Health Sci­ences to fo­cus on de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal work

Contract research M&A had a healthy run in recent years before recently petering out. But with the market ripe for a big buyout and the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizing the importance of decentralized trials, Wednesday saw a tectonic shift in the CRO world.

Icon, the Dublin-based CRO, will acquire PRA Health Sciences for $12 billion in a move that will shake up the highest rungs of a fragmented market. The merger would combine the 5th- and 6th-largest CROs by 2020 revenue, according to Icon, and the merger will set the newco up to be the second-largest global CRO behind only IQVIA.

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Per­cep­tive's fourth — yes, fourth — SPAC jumps to Nas­daq as the blank check tree con­tin­ues to ripen

The biotech SPAC boom has gone almost hand-in-hand with the industry’s IPO gold rush, and this week saw more blank check companies hop aboard the train.

Leading the way is Perceptive Advisors’ fourth SPAC, appropriately named Arya Sciences Acquisition IV, which priced Friday morning after raising $130 million. And on top of that, new Ziopharm executive chair James Huang is launching his own SPAC with MSD Partners and Panacea Venture, filing S-1 paperwork Thursday with plans to raise $200 million.

CEO Fred Aslan (Artiva)

NK cell ther­a­py play­er Arti­va makes some more noise, pulling in $120M Se­ries B less than a month af­ter Mer­ck deal

Not even one month after Big Pharma took notice of Artiva when Merck signed a collaboration worth nearly $2 billion in milestones, the off-the-shelf NK cell biotech already has its next big fundraise.

Artiva returns from the venture well Friday with a $120 million Series B round, money they will use to get their first program into the clinic and to file INDs for another two candidates. The raise marks the latest development in a rapidly expanding footprint for Artiva, which, in addition to the Merck deal last month, has now raised almost $200 million since its Series A last June.

With dust set­tled on ac­tivist at­tack, Lau­rence Coop­er leaves Zio­pharm to a new board

Laurence Cooper has done his part.

In the five years since he left a tenured position at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center to become CEO of Boston-based Ziopharm, he’s steered the small-cap immunotherapy player through patient deaths in trials, clinical holds, short attacks and, most recently, an activist attack on the board.

So when the company has “fantastic news” like an IND clearance for a TCR T cell therapy program, he’s ready to pass on the baton.

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Doug Ingram (file photo)

Why not? Sarep­ta’s third Duchenne MD drug sails to ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval

Sarepta may be running into some trouble with its next-gen gene therapy approach to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But when it comes to antisense oligonucleotides, the well-trodden regulatory path is still leading straight to an accelerated approval for casimersen, now christened Amondys 45.

We just have to wait until 2024 to find out if it works.

Amondys 45’s approval was unceremonious, compared to its two older siblings. There was no controversy within the FDA over approving a drug based on a biomarker rather than clinical benefit, setting up a powerful precedent that still haunts acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock as biotech insiders weighed her potential permanent appointment; no drama like the FDA issuing a stunning rejection only to reverse its decision and hand out an OK four months later, which got more complicated after the scathing complete response letter was published; no anxious tea leaf reading or heated arguments from drug developers and patient advocates who were tired of having corticosteroids as their loved ones’ only (sometimes expensive) option.

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