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.

Martin Shkreli [via Getty]

Pris­on­er #87850-053 does not get to add drug de­vel­op­er to his list of cred­its

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Hal Barron. GSK

GSK's Hal Bar­ron her­alds their sec­ond pos­i­tive PhI­II for cru­cial an­ti-BC­MA ther­a­py, point­ing to a push for quick OKs in a crowd­ed field

Hal Barron has his second positive round of Phase III data in hand for his anti-BCMA antibody drug conjugate belantamab mafodotin (GSK2857916). And GSK’s research chief says the data paves the way for their drive in search of an FDA approval for treating multiple myeloma. 

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this drug for GSK, a cornerstone of Barron’s campaign to make a dramatic impact on the oncology market and provide some long-lost excitement for the pharma giant’s pipeline. They’re putting this BCMA program at the front of that charge — looking to lead a host of rivals all aimed at the same target.

UP­DAT­ED: An em­bold­ened As­traZeneca splurges $95M on a pri­or­i­ty re­view vouch­er. Where do they need the FDA to hus­tle up?

AstraZeneca is in a hurry.

We learned this morning that the pharma giant — not known as a big spender, until recently — forked over $95 million to get its hands on a priority review voucher from Sobi, otherwise known as Swedish Orphan Biovitrum.

That marks another step down on price for a PRV, which allows the holder to slash 4 months off of any FDA review time.

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We­bi­nar: Re­al World End­points — the brave new world com­ing in build­ing fran­chise ther­a­pies

Several biopharma companies have been working on expanding drug labels through the use of real world endpoints, combing through the data to find evidence of a drug’s efficacy for particular indications. But we’ve just begun. Real World Evidence is becoming an important part of every clinical development plan, in the soup-through-nuts approach used in building franchises.

I’ve recruited a panel of 3 top experts in the field — the first in a series of premium webinars — to look at the practical realities governing what can be done today, and where this is headed over the next few years, at the prodding of the FDA.

ZHEN SU — Merck Serono’s Senior Vice President and Global Head of Oncology
ELLIOTT LEVY — Amgen’s Senior Vice President of Global Development
CHRIS BOSHOFF — Pfizer Oncology’s Chief Development Officer

A premium subscription to Endpoints News is required to attend this webinar. Please upgrade to either an Insider or Enterprise plan for access. Already have Endpoints Premium? Please sign-in below. You can contact our Subscriptions team at help@endpointsnews.com with any issues.

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Brian Kaspar. AveXis via Twitter

AveX­is sci­en­tif­ic founder fires back at No­var­tis CEO Vas Narasimhan, 'cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly de­nies any wrong­do­ing'

Brian Kaspar’s head was among the first to roll at Novartis after company execs became aware of the fact that manipulated data had been included in its application for Zolgensma, now the world’s most expensive therapy.

But in his first public response, the scientific founder at AveXis — acquired by Novartis for $8.7 billion — is firing back. And he says that not only was he not involved in any wrongdoing, he’s ready to defend his name as needed.

I reached out to Brian Kaspar after Novartis put out word that he and his brother Allen had been axed in mid-May, two months after the company became aware of the allegations related to manipulated data. His response came back through his attorneys.

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Bob Smith, Pfizer

Pfiz­er is mak­ing a $500M state­ment to­day: Here’s how you be­come a lead play­er in the boom­ing gene ther­a­py sec­tor

Three years ago, Pfizer anted up $150 million in cash to buy Bamboo Therapeutics in Chapel Hill, NC as it cautiously stuck a toe in the small gene therapy pool of research and development.

Company execs followed up a year later with a $100 million expansion of the manufacturing operations they picked up in that deal for the UNC spinout, which came with $495 million in milestones.

And now they’re really going for it.

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Video: Putting the AI in R&D — with Badhri Srini­vasan, Tony Wood, Rosana Kapeller, Hugo Ceule­mans, Saurabh Sa­ha and Shoibal Dat­ta

During BIO this year, I had a chance to moderate a panel among some of the top tech experts in biopharma on their real-world use of artificial intelligence in R&D. There’s been a lot said about the potential of AI, but I wanted to explore more about what some of the larger players are actually doing with this technology today, and how they see it advancing in the future. It was a fascinating exchange, which you can see here. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. — John Carroll

Am­gen, Al­ler­gan biosim­i­lar of Roche's block­buster Rit­ux­an clears an­oth­er US piv­otal study 

Novartis $NVS may have given up, but Amgen $AMGN and Allergan $AGN are plowing ahead with their knockoff of Roche’s blockbuster biologic Rituxan in the United States.

Their copycat, ABP 798, was found to have a clinically equivalent impact as Rituxan — meeting the main goal of the study involving CD20-positive B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients. This is the second trial supporting the profile of the biosimilar. In January, it came through with positive PK results in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

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The Trump administration is not giving up just yet. On Wednesday, the HHS filed an appeal against a judge’s decision in July to overturn a ruling obligating drug manufacturers to disclose the list price of their therapies in television adverts — hours before it was stipulated to go into effect.

In May, the HHS published a final ruling requiring drugmakers to divulge the wholesale acquisition cost— of a 30-day supply of the drug — in tv ads in a bid to enhance price transparency in the United States. The pharmaceutical industry has vehemently opposed the rule, asserting that list prices are not what a typical patient in the United States pays for treatment — that number is typically determined by the type of (or lack thereof) insurance coverage, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. Although there is truth to that claim, the move was considered symbolic in the Trump administration’s healthcare agenda to hold drugmakers accountable in a climate where skyrocketing drug prices have incensed Americans on both sides of the aisle.