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.

Once fu­ri­ous over No­var­tis’ da­ta ma­nip­u­la­tion scan­dal, the FDA now says it’s noth­ing they need to take ac­tion on

Back in the BP era — Before Pandemic — the FDA ripped Novartis for its decision to keep the agency in the dark about manipulated data used in its application for Zolgensma while its marketing application for the gene therapy was under review.

Civil and criminal sanctions were being discussed, the agency noted in a rare broadside at one of the world’s largest pharma companies. Notable lawmakers cheered the angry regulators on, urging the FDA to make an example of Novartis, which fielded Zolgensma at $2.1 million — the current record for a one-off therapy.

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Covid-19 roundup: GSK, Am­gen tai­lor R&D work to fit the coro­n­avirus age; Doud­na's ge­nomics crew launch­es di­ag­nos­tic lab

You can add Amgen and GSK to the list of deep-pocket drug R&D players who are tailoring their pipeline work to fit a new age of coronavirus.

Following in the footsteps of a lineup of big players like Eli Lilly — which has suspended patient recruitment for drug studies — Amgen and GSK have opted to take a more tailored approach. Amgen is intent on circling the wagons around key studies that are already fully enrolled, and GSK has the red light on new studies while the pandemic plays out.

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In a stun­ning set­back, Amarin los­es big patent fight over Vas­cepa IP. And its high-fly­ing stock crash­es to earth

Amarin’s shares $AMRN were blitzed Monday evening, losing billions in value as reports spread that the company had lost its high-profile effort to keep its Vascepa patents protected from generic drugmakers.

Amarin had been fighting to keep key patents under lock and key — and away from generic rivals — for another 10 years, but District Court Judge Miranda Du in Las Vegas ruled against the biotech. She ruled that:
(A)ll the Asserted Claims are invalid as obvious under 35 U.S.C.§ 103. Thus, the Court finds in favor of Defendants on Plaintiff’s remaining infringementclaim, and in their favor on their counterclaims asserting the invalidity of the AssertedClaims under 35 U.S.C. § 103.

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Covid-19 roundup: J&J, BAR­DA set ear­ly 2021 fin­ish line for $1B vac­cine race; FDA al­lows emer­gency drug use, ahead of piv­otal da­ta

J&J has zeroed in on a Covid-19 vaccine candidate that it hopes to begin testing in humans by September this year — with the extraordinary goal of getting it ready for emergency use in early 2021. And together with BARDA, it’s committing $1 billion to make it happen.

That kind of accelerated timeline would fall on the fast side of NIAID director Anthony Fauci’s well-publicized prediction that it would be another 12 to 18 months before a vaccine can be available for public use. A Phase I trial of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine began two weeks ago, and both the biotech and fellow mRNA player CureVac have discussed similar, if not even faster, timelines for emergency use among healthcare workers.

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As­traZeneca says its block­buster Farx­i­ga proved to be a game-chang­er in CKD — wrap­ping PhI­II ear­ly

If the FDA can still hold up its end of the bargain, AstraZeneca is already on a short path to scooping up a cutting-edge win with a likely approval for their SGLT2 drug Farxiga in cutting the risk of heart failure. Now the pharma giant says it can point to solid evidence that the drug — initially restricted to diabetes — also works for chronic kidney disease, potentially adding a blockbuster indication for the franchise.

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It is 'kind of a proven tech­nol­o­gy': Hep B vac­cine mak­er joins glob­al hunt for coro­n­avirus vac­cine

Using lab-grown proteins that are engineered to mimic the architecture of viruses to induce an immune response, VBI Vaccines is joining the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine — harnessing technology that has initially been proved safe in early trials as a prophylactic for cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection.

Unlike the raft of the companies in the Covid-19 vaccine race — including Moderna, CureVac and J&J — VBI is taking a pan-coronavirus approach, by developing a vaccine that will encompass Covid-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Can a pair of top AveX­is alum­ni steer a new gene ther­a­py up­start to R&D glo­ry? 3 VCs bet $60M on it

VCs love few things more than a proven executive team when it comes to launching a new company. And now a group of A-listers has turned to a pair of top execs out of AveXis to steer the latest gene therapy player into the clinic.

The biotech is Waltham, MA-based Affinia and the two execs are Sean Nolan and Rick Modi — the former CEO and CBO respectively of AveXis, the gene therapy pioneer that fetched $8.7 billion in a sale to Novartis. Nolan has now taken the chairman’s role at Affinia while Modi moves up to the CEO post at the company.

Un­de­terred by a pan­dem­ic, Gilde Health­care rais­es their largest fund yet

When Pieter van der Meer started raising the capital for Gilde Healthcare’s fifth fund in the waning months of 2019, he had his eyes on a different chain of events that could change the healthcare system and perhaps even play to his firm’s advantage: The US presidential election.

Since raising their third fund in 2011, the 34-year-old Dutch firm had focused on value-based care. They chose late-stage biotechs that came up with new devices and delivery systems for de-risked established compounds, and when they chose preclinical biotechs, they spoke with potential pharma partners, payers and regulators to ask where and at what prices the drug made sense. As the Democratic primary became a contest over how to lower healthcare costs, it looked like a strategy that could pay off.

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Gilead CEO Dan O'­Day of­fers a de­tailed ex­pla­na­tion on remde­sivir ac­cess — re­as­sur­ing an­a­lysts that Covid-19 da­ta are com­ing fast

After coming under heavy fire from consumer groups ready to pummel them for grabbing the FDA’s orphan status for remdesivir — reserved to encourage the development of rare disease therapies — Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day had some explaining to do about the company’s approach to providing access to this drug to patients suffering from Covid-19. And he set aside time over the weekend to patiently explain how they are making their potential pandemic drug available in a new program — one he feels can better be used to address a growing pack of infected patients desperately seeking remdesivir under compassionate use provisions.

In addition to trying to reassure patients that they will once again have an avenue to pursue access, O’Day also reassured some analysts who had been fretting that China’s quick comeback from the coronavirus outbreak could derail its ultra-fast schedule for testing the drug in patients. The data are still expected in a few weeks, he says in the letter, putting the readout in April.

O’Day emphasizes that Gilead intends to pursue a pricing approach that will make this drug widely available — if it proves effective and safe. But no one is quite sure just what the longterm value would be, given the work being done on a variety of vaccines that may be rolled out as early as this fall — at least to the most heavily threatened groups.

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