This is it? GSK rolls out a buzzy new R&D plan long on as­pi­ra­tions and short on per­for­mance goals

Glax­o­SmithK­line set out to kick­start some en­thu­si­asm for its pipeline this morn­ing. But CEO Em­ma Walm­s­ley and her new R&D chief Hal Bar­ron clear­ly have a lot more work cut out for them on that crit­i­cal point.

Its quar­ter­ly re­port high­lights a strat­e­gy in R&D that will be heav­i­ly fo­cused on the im­mune sys­tem and hu­man ge­net­ics — two well es­tab­lished fields that long ago at­tract­ed the at­ten­tion of just about every­one work­ing in drug de­vel­op­ment these days. And they signed up 23andMe — pay­ing $300 mil­lion to buy in and gain ex­clu­sive ac­cess to its da­ta base — to help ex­plore dis­ease rel­e­vant genes, herald­ing a “ma­jor ad­vance” while adding to a slate of al­liances on ge­net­ics the Lon­don-based gi­ant has al­ready com­plet­ed.

The phar­ma gi­ant says it will fo­cus more on CRISPR tech, with an em­pha­sis on ma­chine learn­ing and com­pu­ta­tion­al de­sign — a cou­ple of buzzy fea­tures that have al­so been mak­ing the rounds late­ly.

There’s a com­ment on cul­ture:

GSK al­so in­tends to pro­mote a cul­ture of in­creased ac­count­abil­i­ty and smart risk-tak­ing. This will in­clude re­defin­ing suc­cess and fos­ter­ing a cul­ture of truth-seek­ing ver­sus pro­gres­sion- seek­ing, and op­ti­mised port­fo­lio de­ci­sion-mak­ing, along­side im­ple­men­ta­tion of a new ro­bust gov­er­nance mod­el. Tar­get­ed busi­ness de­vel­op­ment to strength­en the Group’s pipeline and tech­nol­o­gy ca­pa­bil­i­ties will al­so be part of the new R&D ap­proach. 

And then there’s the po­ten­tial. Look­ing to make a come­back in phar­ma R&D, GSK tout­ed a BC­MA ther­a­py in de­vel­op­ment — hard­ly the first. HIV al­so war­rants a men­tion, though that will be cen­tered in its ma­jor­i­ty-owned sub­sidiary Vi­iV,  which has been mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant ad­vances along­side the vac­cines group.

With lit­tle in the way of specifics to of­fer from the phar­ma side in the near term, GSK is vague­ly promis­ing big things be­yond 2020.

In a con­fer­ence call with re­porters to­day — at least the ones that weren’t al­lowed a pre­view — Bar­ron and 23andMe chief Anne Wo­j­ci­c­ki hit the dis­cov­ery an­gle hard, high­light­ing what they see as an op­por­tu­ni­ty to find gene vari­ants for Parkin­son’s and can­cer and oth­er dis­eases that would make good new pro­grams.

I asked Bar­ron for his as­sess­ment of the R&D op­er­a­tion he had tak­en on. He em­pha­sized the pos­i­tive, but al­so ac­knowl­edged the weak­ness­es.

“I think it’s im­por­tant to look back at what GSK has done well,” he replied. There have been a num­ber of new ap­provals, he said, but with­out the kind of com­mer­cial im­pact that can gen­er­ate the num­bers the com­pa­ny needs. This new al­liance with 23andMe, he said, of­fered the chance to get at that — with new tar­gets that could be suit­able for mul­ti­ple ap­provals and bet­ter life cy­cle man­age­ment of im­por­tant new drugs.

I tried to fol­low up with a ques­tion on whether GSK had a dis­cov­ery or late-stage drug prob­lem, but got cut off on the call.

GSK brought in the leg­endary Genen­tech vet to turn around what is per­haps the slow­est, most woe­ful Big Phar­ma R&D group in the world. A ge­net­ics data­base deal with 23andMe will of­fer no short-term help, of­fer­ing a leg up for dis­cov­ery work that will be years in the mak­ing. And Bar­ron will try to or­ches­trate the turn­around from his base in the Bay Area, far from GSK’s cen­tral re­search op­er­a­tions around Philadel­phia and Steve­nage in the UK.

De­spite a bud­get of $6 bil­lion, Glax­o­SmithK­line has had lit­tle in the late-stage pipeline to boast about — and the late-stage pipeline is what is used to judge a com­pa­ny’s po­ten­tial in turn­ing out block­busters.

GSK’s phar­ma R&D group doesn’t make block­busters, though. Or hasn’t in years. And adopt­ing a strat­e­gy that any busi­ness school grad­u­ate could have whipped up one af­ter­noon won’t gin up miss­ing ex­cite­ment in the in­vest­ment com­mu­ni­ty.


Im­age: Hal Bar­ron. GSK

Fangliang Zhang, AP Images

Leg­end fetch­es $424 mil­lion, emerges as biggest win­ner yet in pan­dem­ic IPO boom

Amid a flurry of splashy pandemic IPOs, a J&J-partnered Chinese biotech has emerged with one of the largest public raises in biotech history.

Legend Biotech, the Nanjing-based CAR-T developer, has raised $424 million on NASDAQ. The biotech had originally filed for a still-hefty $350 million, based on a range of $18-$20, but managed to fetch $23 per share, allowing them to well-eclipse the massive raises from companies like Allogene, Juno, Galapagos, though they’ll still fall a few dollars short of Moderna’s record-setting $600 million raise from 2018.

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As it hap­pened: A bid­ding war for an an­tibi­ot­ic mak­er in a mar­ket that has rav­aged its peers

In a bewildering twist to the long-suffering market for antibiotics — there has actually been a bidding war for an antibiotic company: Tetraphase.

It all started back in March, when the maker of Xerava (an FDA approved therapy for complicated intra-abdominal infections) said it had received an offer from AcelRx for an all-stock deal valued at $14.4 million.

The offer was well-timed. Xerava was approved in 2018, four years after Tetraphase posted its first batch of pivotal trial data, and sales were nowhere near where they needed to be in order for the company to keep its head above water.

President Donald Trump (left) and Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed (Alex Brandon, AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: White House names fi­nal­ists for Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed — with 5 ex­pect­ed names and one no­table omis­sion

A month after word first broke of the Trump Administration’s plan to rapidly accelerate the development and production of a Covid-19 vaccine, the White House has selected the five vaccine candidates they consider most likely to succeed, The New York Times reported.

Most of the names in the plan, known as Operation Warp Speed, will come as little surprise to those who have watched the last four months of vaccine developments: Moderna, which was the first vaccine to reach humans and is now the furthest along of any US effort; J&J, which has not gone into trials but received around $500 million in funding from BARDA earlier this year; the joint AstraZeneca-Oxford venture which was granted $1.2 billion from BARDA two weeks ago; Pfizer, which has been working with the mRNA biotech BioNTech; and Merck, which just entered the race and expects to put their two vaccine candidates into humans later this year.

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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Drug man­u­fac­tur­ing gi­ant Lon­za taps Roche/phar­ma ‘rein­ven­tion’ vet as its new CEO

Lonza chairman Albert Baehny took his time headhunting a new CEO for the company, making it absolutely clear he wanted a Big Pharma or biotech CEO with a good long track record in the business for the top spot. In the end, he went with the gold standard, turning to Roche’s ranks to recruit Pierre-Alain Ruffieux for the job.

Ruffieux, a member of the pharma leadership team at Roche, spent close to 5 years at the company. But like a small army of manufacturing execs, he gained much of his experience at the other Big Pharma in Basel, remaining at Novartis for 12 years before expanding his horizons.

Covid-19 roundup: Ab­b­Vie jumps in­to Covid-19 an­ti­body hunt; As­traZeneca shoots for 2B dos­es of Ox­ford vac­cine — with $750M from CEPI, Gavi

Another Big Pharma is entering the Covid-19 antibody hunt.

AbbVie has announced a collaboration with the Netherlands’ Utrecht University and Erasmus Medical Center and the Chinese-Dutch biotech Harbour Biomed to develop a neutralizing antibody that can treat Covid-19. The antibody, called 47D11, was discovered by AbbVie’s three partners, and AbbVie will support early preclinical work, while preparing for later preclinical and clinical development. Researchers described the antibody in Nature Communications last month.

Mer­ck wins a third FDA nod for an­tibi­ot­ic; Mereo tack­les TIG­IT with $70M raise in hand

Merck — one of the last big pharma bastions in the beleaguered field of antibiotic drug development — on Friday said the FDA had signed off on using its combination drug, Recarbrio, with hospital-acquired bacterial pneumonia and ventilator-associated bacterial pneumonia. The drug could come handy for use in hospitalized patients who are afflicted with Covid-19, who carry a higher risk of contracting secondary bacterial infections. Once SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind Covid-19, infects the airways, it engages the immune system, giving other pathogens free rein to pillage and plunder as they please — the issue is particularly pertinent in patients on ventilators, which in any case are breeding grounds for infectious bacteria.

RA Cap­i­tal, Hill­house join $310M rush to back Ever­est's climb to com­mer­cial heights in Chi­na

Money has never been an issue for Everest Medicines. With an essentially open tab from their founders at C-Bridge Capital, the biotech has gone two and a half years racking up drug after drug, bringing in top exec after top exec, and issuing clinical update after update.

But now other investors want in — and they’re betting big.

Everest is closing its Series C at $310 million. The first $50 million comes from the Jiashan National Economic and Technological Development Zone; the remaining C-2 tranche was led by Janchor Partners, with RA Capital Management and Hillhouse Capital as co-leaders. Decheng Capital, GT Fund, Janus Henderson Investors, Rock Springs Capital, Octagon Investments all joined.

Leen Kawas, Athira CEO (Athira)

Can a small biotech suc­cess­ful­ly tack­le an Ever­est climb like Alzheimer’s? Athi­ra has $85M and some in­flu­en­tial back­ers ready to give it a shot

There haven’t been a lot of big venture rounds for biotech companies looking to run a Phase II study in Alzheimer’s.

The field has been a disaster over the past decade. Amyloid didn’t pan out as a target — going down in a litany of Phase III failures — and is now making its last stand at Biogen. Tau is a comer, but when you look around and all you see is destruction, the idea of backing a startup trying to find complex cocktails to swing the course of this devilishly complicated memory-wasting disease would daunt the pluckiest investors.