Third Rock sinks $59M in­to Cas­ma's 're­cy­cling' tech, with neu­ro on the mind

It feels like launch sea­son, and Third Rock is on a roll. The ven­ture fund and start­up in­cu­ba­tor is un­veil­ing yet an­oth­er biotech — its third pub­lic launch in a num­ber of weeks. This one is step­ping out with a $58.5 mil­lion Se­ries A, and a locked and loaded staff of au­tophagy ex­perts.

Beth Levine

The com­pa­ny, called Cas­ma Ther­a­peu­tics, has qui­et­ly been work­ing on tech­nol­o­gy that it hopes will ar­rest — or even re­verse — the pro­gres­sion of both rare and broad ge­net­ic dis­eases, in­clud­ing the fail­ure-rid­den space of neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion.

To do this, Cam­bridge, MA-based Cas­ma is us­ing new strate­gies to boost the body’s abil­i­ty to break down ma­te­r­i­al it no longer needs, like mis­fold­ed pro­teins, in­vad­ing pathogens, or spare or­ganelles. Think of it as the cell’s re­cy­cling sys­tem. When this slaugh­ter and sal­vage process (called au­tophagy) isn’t work­ing — or when it’s over­whelmed by dis­ease — all sorts of things can go awry.

Cas­ma’s CEO Kei­th Dionne tells me the com­pa­ny is look­ing at us­ing small mol­e­cules to drug var­i­ous pro­teins in­volved in trig­ger­ing au­tophagy. The idea is to in­ter­vene at strate­gic points in the au­tophagy process to boost the re­cy­cling sys­tem. And they’ve got pre­clin­i­cal da­ta that sug­gest turn­ing the di­al up on au­tophagy could lead to treat­ments for a wide range of dis­ease, in­clud­ing lyso­so­mal stor­age dis­or­ders, liv­er and mus­cle dis­eases, in­flam­ma­to­ry dis­or­ders, and neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion.

An­drea Bal­labio

“In pre­clin­i­cal mod­els, we’re see­ing a ma­jor ef­fect in a num­ber of dis­eases,” Dionne said. “And it’s proven to be quite safe. If you ge­net­i­cal­ly in­duce au­tophagy in mice, they live health­i­er, longer lives — freer of dis­ease.”

Cas­ma al­ready has “4 to 5” pro­grams in the pipeline, Dionne said.

James Hur­ley

In­ter­est in this field has been warm­ing up since 2016, when the dis­cov­ery of key mech­a­nisms in au­tophagy earned the No­bel Prize for Phys­i­ol­o­gy or Med­i­cine. Since then, the sci­ence has moved rapid­ly. Many com­pa­nies are now pur­su­ing the idea of au­tophagy’s im­pact on dis­ease.

“There are a num­ber of drugs known to en­hance au­tophagy as a side ef­fect,” Dionne said. “The key thing we want to do is go af­ter the spe­cif­ic mech­a­nism, with­out a lot of oth­er side ef­fects.”

Her­bert “Skip” Vir­gin

Cas­ma’s sci­en­tif­ic founders cer­tain­ly have loads of com­bined ex­pe­ri­ence in au­tophagy. Among them is Beth Levine, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Au­tophagy Re­search, who’s rec­og­nized as a world­wide ex­pert in au­tophagy for her dis­cov­ery of the mam­malian au­tophagy gene, BECN1, and oth­er com­po­nents of the au­tophagy path­way. Then there’s An­drea Bal­labio, a leader in the field of tran­scrip­tion­al reg­u­la­tion of lyso­so­mal bio­gen­e­sis and au­tophagy; James Hur­ley, who per­formed ground­break­ing stud­ies to de­ter­mine the struc­ture and ac­tiv­i­ty of au­tophagy core com­plex­es; and Her­bert “Skip” Vir­gin, who forged new ground in the un­der­stand­ing of au­tophagy’s role in in­flam­ma­tion and im­mu­ni­ty.

Dionne said the com­pa­ny’s Se­ries A should get them 2 to 3 years of run­way, giv­ing the com­pa­ny the chance to de­vel­op spe­cif­ic en­hancers of au­tophagy and val­i­date if they’re work­ing.

Im­age: Kei­th Dionne. Cas­ma

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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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.

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.

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.

Covid-19 roundup: Mer­ck­'s $356M sup­ply deal on hold as FDA asks for more da­ta; FDA ap­proves Pfiz­er/BioN­Tech vac­cine stor­age at stan­dard freez­er temps

Merck is pushing back plans to supply the US government with a Covid-19 drug after the FDA asked for more data to support an emergency use authorization.

The antibody, MK-7110, had looked promising in a Phase III study conducted by OncoImmune before Merck came along and bought the biotech for $425 million. At the interim analysis, investigators looked at data from 203 patients and concluded that a single dose of the drug cut the risk of death or respiratory failure by more than 50% among severe patients. And those taking the drug had a 60% higher chance of improvement in clinical status compared to placebo.

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Fatty liver conceptual image, 3D illustration showing fatty liver silhouette made from micrograph of liver steatosis (Shutterstock)

The path to NASH: un­der­stand­ing the role of se­vere obe­si­ty in a com­plex, mul­ti-sys­tem dis­ease

Biotech Voices is a collection of exclusive opinion editorials from some of the leading voices in biopharma on the biggest industry questions today. Think you have a voice that should be heard? Reach out to senior editors Kyle Blankenship and Amber Tong.

We often think a person’s transition from a healthy to a diseased state is binary. But that’s often not the case. In reality, the onset of a disease is not something that occurs overnight, and the majority lie on a continuum that is impacted by a multitude of factors. Some of these factors are in a patient’s control. Others are not.

This is the case in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), two of the most complex diseases that “live” on this proverbial continuum. The clinical onset of NAFLD — and ultimately NASH — is a complex process that is closely related to obesity, insulin resistance and impaired adipose tissue metabolism.

Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck takes a swing at the IL-2 puz­zle­box with a $1.85B play for buzzy Pan­dion and its au­toim­mune hope­fuls

When Roger Perlmutter bid farewell to Merck late last year, the drugmaker perhaps best known now for sales giant Keytruda signaled its intent to take a swing at early-stage novelty with the appointment of discovery head Dean Li. Now, Merck is signing a decent-sized check to bring an IL-2 moonshot into the fold.

Merck will shell out roughly $1.85 billion for Pandion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech hoping to gin up regulatory T cells (Tregs) to treat a range of autoimmune disorders, the drugmaker said Thursday.

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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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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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