Torque takes tu­mor tech out of stealth with $25M back­ing, new CEO

Torque Ther­a­peu­tics and its high-pro­file C-suite is step­ping out of stealth to an­nounce a $25 mil­lion round, bankrolled by biotech start­up crew Flag­ship Pi­o­neer­ing.

Re­porters scooped the news back in Au­gust when Torque filed reg­u­la­to­ry pa­per­work sig­nal­ing fundrais­ing ef­forts. The pa­per­work caught the eye of biotech writ­ers due to the star-stud­ded ex­ec­u­tive staff.

Bart Hen­der­son

The co-founders in­clude Bart Hen­der­son, the for­mer pres­i­dent of Rhythm Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals (which just snagged $120 mil­lion by go­ing pub­lic); Ul­rik Nielsen, the founder and for­mer CSO of Mer­ri­mack; and Thomas Lars An­dresen, head of mi­cro- and nan­otech­nol­o­gy at Tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­mark.

The com­pa­ny’s top ex­ec­u­tives ap­pear to be play­ing a round of mu­si­cal chairs. Nielsen, who joined Torque as its CEO back in 2015, is leav­ing that post to serve in­stead as pres­i­dent. And Hen­der­son, who joined Torque as pres­i­dent ear­li­er this year, is tak­ing the reins as CEO. It’s like­ly that Hen­der­son is ready to take a more ac­tive role now that Rhythm’s IPO is all wrapped up.

Back when news broke of Torque’s stealthy ac­tiv­i­ties, End­points News re­port­ed the com­pa­ny had raised the first $21 mil­lion of a $35 mil­lion round. Now, the com­pa­ny said it’s de­cid­ed to wrap up that round right at $25 mil­lion to get to work on its pipeline.

Ul­rik Nielsen

To put it mild­ly, the team has some lofty am­bi­tions to rev­o­lu­tion­ize cell ther­a­pies as we know it. The game now is to make bet­ter cell ther­a­pies, ca­pa­ble of mount­ing a fierce at­tack on can­cer cells with a plat­form tech that has im­pli­ca­tions for CAR-T, TCRs, NK cells and anti­gen spe­cif­ic T cells.

Un­til now, Torque has been pret­ty tight-lipped on how their next-gen cell ther­a­py works. But as part of Torque’s com­ing out par­ty, Nielsen and Hen­der­son gave me a peek at the sci­ence dri­ving the com­pa­ny’s pipeline.

Torque’s tu­mor-fight­ing tech

Let’s start with the end goal: ramp­ing up the body’s im­mune sys­tem to fight can­cer di­rect­ly at the site of a sol­id tu­mor.

“We’ve seen spec­tac­u­lar re­sults in on­col­o­gy with CAR-T, and now every­one is won­der­ing how to take that suc­cess to the next lev­el with sol­id tu­mors,” Nielsen said.

Torque’s plan is to stick bio­ther­a­peu­tics to T cells, which are then de­liv­ered di­rect­ly to the tu­mor site. The com­pa­ny’s lead pro­gram, called Deep IL-15, an­chors a growth fac­tor to the T cell, which ac­ti­vates a tiny army of T cells to take down the tu­mor.

At­tempt­ing to boost pop­u­la­tions of T cells with growth fac­tors isn’t a nov­el idea, but so far com­pa­nies have been ad­min­is­ter­ing the growth fac­tors sys­tem­i­cal­ly. That can be a prob­lem, Nielsen said, as “the im­mune sys­tem is ac­ti­vat­ed where it shouldn’t be ac­ti­vat­ed,” pro­mot­ing tox­i­c­i­ty.

Torque’s re­al val­ue is in its abil­i­ty to an­chor these bio­ther­a­peu­tics to T cells, Hen­der­son said. The com­pa­ny is call­ing this tech­nol­o­gy “Deep-Prim­ing,” and the man­u­fac­tur­ing process seems pret­ty straight­for­ward.

“Whether the cells are au­tol­o­gous or al­lo­gene­ic, you take out a vial of Deep IL-15, mix it with the cells, and freeze it,” Nielsen said.

Part­ner­ing prospects and the pipeline

Torque al­ready has three pro­grams in the pipeline that mod­u­late the im­mune sys­tem, tar­get­ing both blood and sol­id tu­mors. Hen­der­son said the com­pa­ny could part­ner that tech­nol­o­gy with an ex­ist­ing im­muno-on­col­o­gy drug, or pair the tech with its own ear­ly-stage check­point in­hibitor.

“Our pro­grams are meant to be syn­er­gis­tic, but the ul­ti­mate vi­sion is that each one will have a dra­mat­ic ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fit,” Hen­der­son said.

The com­pa­ny is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing part­ner­ships with play­ers in the im­muno-on­col­o­gy space. In the mean­time, Torque will use its lat­est round of cap­i­tal to ad­vance pro­grams along.

Flag­ship Pi­o­neer­ing, which has be­come one of the most promi­nent blank-slate ven­ture funds in biotech, chipped in the full $25 mil­lion for Torque’s Se­ries A. Al­though Flag­ship is well known for its start­up in­cu­ba­tor Ven­ture­Labs, Torque was not hatched there, Hen­der­son said.

The top 10 block­buster drugs in the late-stage pipeline — Eval­u­ate adds 6 new ther­a­pies to heavy-hit­ter list

Vertex comes in for a substantial amount of criticism for its no-holds-barred tactical approach toward wresting the price it wants for its commercial drugs in Europe. But the flip side of that coin is a highly admired R&D and commercial operation that regularly wins kudos from analysts for their ability to engineer greater cash flow from the breakthrough drugs they create.

Both aspects needed for success in this business are on display in the program backing Vertex’s triple for cystic fibrosis. VX-659/VX-445 + Tezacaftor + Ivacaftor — it’s been whittled down to 445 now — was singled out by Evaluate Pharma as the late-stage therapy most likely to win the crown for drug sales in 5 years, with a projected peak revenue forecast of $4.3 billion.

The latest annual list, which you can see here in their latest world preview, includes a roster of some of the most closely watched development programs in biopharma. And Evaluate has added 6 must-watch experimental drugs to the top 10 as drugs fail or go on to a first approval. With apologies to the list maker, I revamped this to rank the top 10 by projected 2024 sales, instead of Evaluate's net present value rankings.

It's how we roll at Endpoints News.

Here is a quick summary of the rest of the top 10:

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How small- to mid-sized biotechs can adopt pa­tient cen­tric­i­ty in their on­col­o­gy tri­als

By Lucy Clos­sick Thom­son, Se­nior Di­rec­tor of On­col­o­gy Pro­ject Man­age­ment, Icon

Clin­i­cal tri­als in on­col­o­gy can be cost­ly and chal­leng­ing to man­age. One fac­tor that could re­duce costs and re­duce bar­ri­ers is har­ness­ing the pa­tient voice in tri­al de­sign to help ac­cel­er­ate pa­tient en­roll­ment. Now is the time to adopt pa­tient-cen­tric strate­gies that not on­ly fo­cus on pa­tient needs, but al­so can main­tain cost ef­fi­cien­cy.

John Reed at JPM 2019. Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News

Sanofi's John Reed con­tin­ues to re­or­ga­nize R&D, cut­ting 466 jobs while boost­ing can­cer, gene ther­a­py re­search

The R&D reorganization inside Sanofi is continuing, more than a year after the pharma giant brought in John Reed to head the research arm of the Paris-based company.
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Partners Innovation Fund

David de Graaf now has his $28.5M launch round in place, build­ing a coen­zyme A plat­form in his lat­est start­up

Long­time biotech ex­ec David de Graaf has the cash he needs to set up the pre­clin­i­cal foun­da­tion for his coen­zyme A me­tab­o­lism com­pa­ny Comet. A few high-pro­file in­vestors joined the ven­ture syn­di­cate to sup­ply Comet with $28.5 mil­lion in launch mon­ey — enough to get it two years in­to the plat­form-build­ing game, with­in knock­ing dis­tance of the clin­ic.

Canaan jumped in along­side ex­ist­ing in­vestor Sofinno­va Part­ners to co-lead the round, with par­tic­i­pa­tion by ex­ist­ing in­vestor INKEF Cap­i­tal and new in­vestor BioIn­no­va­tion Cap­i­tal.

Neil Woodford. Woodford Investment Management via YouTube

Wood­ford braces po­lit­i­cal storm as UK fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tors scru­ti­nize fund sus­pen­sion

The shock of Neil Wood­ford’s de­ci­sion to block with­drawals for his flag­ship fund is still rip­pling through the rest of his port­fo­lio — and be­yond. Un­der po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, UK fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tors are now tak­ing a hard look while in­vestors con­tin­ue to flee.

In a re­sponse let­ter to an MP, the Fi­nan­cial Con­duct Au­thor­i­ty re­vealed that it’s opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to the sus­pen­sion fol­low­ing months of en­gage­ment with Link Fund So­lu­tions, which tech­ni­cal­ly del­e­gat­ed Wood­ford’s firm to man­age its funds.

Dave Barrett, Brian Chee, Amir Nashat, Amy Schulman. Polaris

Bob Langer's first port of call — Po­laris Part­ners — maps $400M for ninth fund

Health and tech ven­ture group Po­laris Part­ners, which counts Alec­tor, Al­ny­lam and Ed­i­tas Med­i­cine as part of its port­fo­lio, is set­ting up its ninth fund, rough­ly two years af­ter it closed Po­laris VI­II with $435 mil­lion in the bank, sur­pass­ing its tar­get by $35 mil­lion.

The Boston-based firm, in an SEC fil­ing, said it in­tends to raise $400 mil­lion for the fund. Po­laris — which rou­tine­ly backs com­pa­nies mold­ed out of the work done in the lab of pro­lif­ic sci­en­tist Bob Langer of MIT  — typ­i­cal­ly in­vests ear­ly, and sticks around till com­pa­nies are in the green. Like its peers at Flag­ship and Third Rock, Po­laris is all about cham­pi­oning the lo­cal biotech scene with a steady flow of start­up cash.

John Chiminski, Catalent CEO - File Photo

'It's a growth play': Catal­ent ac­quires Bris­tol-My­er­s' Eu­ro­pean launch pad, ex­pand­ing glob­al CD­MO ops

Catalent is staying on the growth track.

Just two months after committing $1.2 billion to pick up Paragon and take a deep dive into the sizzling hot gene therapy manufacturing sector, the CDMO is bouncing right back with a deal to buy out Bristol-Myers’ central launchpad for new therapies in Europe, acquiring a complex in Anagni, Italy, southwest of Rome, that will significantly expand its capacity on the continent.

There are no terms being offered, but this is no small deal. The Anagni campus employs some 700 staffers, and Catalent is planning to go right in — once the deal closes late this year — with a blueprint to build up the operations further as they expand on oral solid, biologics, and sterile product manufacturing and packaging.

This is an uncommon deal, Catalent CEO John Chiminski tells me. But it offers a shortcut for rapid growth that cuts years out of developing a green fields project. That’s time Catalent doesn’t have as the industry undergoes unprecedented expansion around the world.

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Arc­turus ex­pands col­lab­o­ra­tion, adding $30M cash; Ku­ra shoots for $100M raise

→  Rare dis­ease play­er Ul­tragenyx $RARE is ex­pand­ing its al­liance with Arc­turus $ARCT, pay­ing $24 mil­lion for eq­ui­ty and an­oth­er $6 mil­lion in an up­front as the two part­ners ex­pand their col­lab­o­ra­tion to in­clude up to 12 tar­gets. “This ex­pand­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion fur­ther so­lid­i­fies our mR­NA plat­form by adding ad­di­tion­al tar­gets and ex­pand­ing our abil­i­ty to po­ten­tial­ly treat more dis­eases,” said Emil Kakkis, the CEO at Ul­tragenyx. “We are pleased with the progress of our on­go­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion. Our most ad­vanced mR­NA pro­gram, UX053 for the treat­ment of Glyco­gen Stor­age Dis­ease Type III, is ex­pect­ed to move in­to the clin­ic next year, and we look for­ward to fur­ther build­ing up­on the ini­tial suc­cess of this part­ner­ship.”

UP­DAT­ED: Chica­go biotech ar­gues blue­bird, Third Rock 'killed' its ri­val, pi­o­neer­ing tha­lassemia gene ther­a­py in law­suit

Blue­bird bio $BLUE chief Nick Leschly court­ed con­tro­ver­sy last week when he re­vealed the com­pa­ny’s be­ta tha­lassemia treat­ment will car­ry a jaw-drop­ping $1.8 mil­lion price tag over a 5-year pe­ri­od in Eu­rope — mak­ing it the plan­et’s sec­ond most ex­pen­sive ther­a­py be­hind No­var­tis’ $NVS fresh­ly ap­proved spinal mus­cu­lar at­ro­phy ther­a­py, Zol­gens­ma, at $2.1 mil­lion. A Chica­go biotech, mean­while, has been fum­ing at the side­lines. In a law­suit filed ear­li­er this month, Er­rant Gene Ther­a­peu­tics al­leged that blue­bird and ven­ture cap­i­tal group Third Rock un­law­ful­ly prised a vi­ral vec­tor, de­vel­oped in part­ner­ship with the Memo­r­i­al Sloan Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter (MSK), from its grasp, and thwart­ed the de­vel­op­ment of its sem­i­nal gene ther­a­py.