Maureen Hillenmeyer, Hexagon Bio CEO

Us­ing AI to se­quence fun­gi genomes for can­cer treat­ments, Hexa­gon Bio nets $47M in Se­ries A

A Stan­ford spin­out ex­plor­ing how fun­gi can be se­quenced to dis­cov­er new med­i­cines in on­col­o­gy and in­fec­tious dis­eases now has sig­nif­i­cant­ly more cash to do so.

Ear­ly Tues­day morn­ing, Hexa­gon Bio an­nounced the clos­ing of their Se­ries A fi­nanc­ing, pulling in $47 mil­lion from a group of in­vestors led by The Col­umn Group. The round, which al­so saw par­tic­i­pa­tion from 8VC and Two Sig­ma Ven­tures, will go to­ward cre­at­ing a pro­pri­etary ge­nomics data­base as well as build­ing out a drug dis­cov­ery team to de­vel­op the new com­pounds. Hexa­gon brought on Tod Smeal as its new CSO af­ter he served in the same po­si­tion at Lil­ly Re­search Labs.

“This is go­ing to take us in­to this next phase from com­pa­ny build­ing,” CEO Mau­reen Hil­len­mey­er told End­points News. “We’ve built this great plat­form, but now we’re at a stage where we’re re­al­ly fo­cused on tak­ing mol­e­cules to­wards the clin­ic.”

The tech that Hexa­gon has de­vel­oped aims to op­ti­mize the search for nat­ur­al prod­ucts with­in fun­gi that can serve as foun­da­tions for can­cer treat­ments, Hil­len­mey­er said. His­tor­i­cal­ly, such search­es have been “brute force” meth­ods re­quir­ing painstak­ing ef­forts to se­quence.

But Hexa­gon wants to pair da­ta min­ing with drug dis­cov­ery in or­der to find such nat­ur­al prod­ucts, al­so known as sec­ondary metabo­lites. Fun­gi pro­duce sec­ondary metabo­lites as self-de­fense mech­a­nisms, pro­tect­ing them­selves from dis­ease. Hil­len­mey­er’s goal is to ap­ply an AI al­go­rithm to se­quence and sift through mas­sive amounts of genome da­ta to try to de­ter­mine what oth­er fun­gi nat­u­ral­ly cul­ti­vate metabo­lites use­ful in even­tu­al can­cer ther­a­pies.

Smeal com­pared the task to check­ing out am­a­teur base­ball play­ers to draft for a cham­pi­onship team. The play­ers, or the metabo­lites, are all out there wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered, while the scouts and front of­fices — Hexa­gon’s plat­form and drug dis­cov­ery team, in this in­stance — try to de­ter­mine which have the most po­ten­tial.

“What’s ex­cit­ing about it is that, in the past, there’s al­ready been a lot of suc­cess in de­vel­op­ing drugs based on nat­ur­al prod­ucts but it was re­al­ly a non-sys­tem­at­ic ap­proach,” Smeal said. “Mau­reen’s team is in the process of go­ing through and sam­pling a huge di­ver­si­ty of the pos­si­ble agents that are out there. So it’s sort of a new fron­tier, but it’s be­ing done in a sys­tem­at­ic and ef­fi­cient way.”

Tod Smeal

Metabo­lites from fun­gi have been pro­duced be­fore, most no­tably peni­cillin in ad­di­tion to cho­les­terol-re­duc­ing statins. But while a rev­o­lu­tion­ary an­tibi­ot­ic, peni­cillin was dis­cov­ered by ac­ci­dent in the 1920s, and it took years for re­searchers to ful­ly se­quence the genomes used in statin-based med­i­cines.

That’s where Hexa­gon hopes the da­ta min­ing will pro­vide a huge boon, by cut­ting down the bulk search process it­self and get­ting pro­grams in­to the clin­ic at a faster clip.

“There’s about 5 mil­lion fun­gal genomes on the earth, of which on­ly about 5,000 have been se­quenced,” Hil­len­mey­er said. “Each of those genomes con­tains a huge amount of da­ta that we have to sift through to find what we call the nee­dle in the haystack: drugs that are use­ful for peo­ple.”

As of now, Hexa­gon says it’s too ear­ly to de­ter­mine what any treat­ment might end up look­ing like. Whether the com­pa­ny de­vel­ops an IV-based drug or a once-a-day pill, those de­ci­sions are still up in the air and will de­pend on what tar­gets the com­pa­ny ul­ti­mate­ly goes af­ter.

But one thing’s for cer­tain: Hexa­gon, be­liev­ing in its tech, is not go­ing to be picky.

“We’re fo­cused on on­col­o­gy, but ini­tial­ly we’re go­ing to be work­ing in an­ti-in­fec­tives and on­col­o­gy,” Smeal said. “We’re go­ing to be very op­por­tunis­tic, so de­pend­ing on what comes out of the plat­form, if there’s op­por­tu­ni­ties in oth­er ther­a­peu­tic ar­eas, we will prob­a­bly ex­plore them as well.”

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

Covid-19 vac­cine boost­ers earn big thumbs up, but Mod­er­na draws ire over world sup­ply; What's next for Mer­ck’s Covid pill?; The C-suite view on biotech; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

You may remember that at the beginning of this year, Endpoints News set a goal to go broader and deeper. We are still working towards that, and are excited to share that Beth Snyder Bulik will be joining us on Monday to cover all things pharma marketing. You can sign up for her weekly Endpoints MarketingRx newsletter in your reader profile.

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No­var­tis de­vel­op­ment chief John Tsai: 'We go deep in the new plat­form­s'

During our recent European Biopharma Summit, I talked with Novartis development chief John Tsai about his experiences over the 3-plus years he’s been at the pharma giant. You can read the transcript below or listen to the exchange in the link above.

John Carroll: I followed your career for quite some time. You’ve had more than 20 years in big pharma R&D and you’ve obviously seen quite a lot. I really was curious about what it was like for you three and a half years ago when you took over as R&D chief at Novartis. Obviously a big move, a lot of changes. You went to work for the former R&D chief of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, who had his own track record there. So what was the biggest adjustment when you went into this position?

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Susan Galbraith, Executive VP, Oncology R&D, AstraZeneca

As­traZeneca on­col­o­gy R&D chief Su­san Gal­braith: 'Y­ou're go­ing to need or­thog­o­nal com­bi­na­tion­s'

 

Earlier in the week we broadcast our 4th annual European Biopharma Summit with a great lineup of top execs. One of the one-on-one conversations I set up was with Susan Galbraith, the oncology research chief at AstraZeneca. In a wide-ranging discussion, Galbraith reviewed the cancer drug pipeline and key trends influencing development work at the pharma giant. You can watch the video, above, or stick with the script below. — JC

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Amit Etkin, Alto Neuroscience CEO (Alto via Vimeo)

A star Stan­ford pro­fes­sor leaves his lab for a start­up out to re­make psy­chi­a­try

About five years ago, Amit Etkin had a breakthrough.

The Stanford neurologist, a soft-spoken demi-prodigy who became a professor while still a resident, had been obsessed for a decade with how to better define psychiatric disorders. Drugs for depression or bipolar disorder didn’t work for many patients with the conditions, and he suspected the reason was how traditional diagnoses didn’t actually get at the heart of what was going on in a patient’s brain.

Roche's Tecen­triq cross­es the fin­ish line first in ad­ju­vant lung can­cer, po­ten­tial­ly kick­ing off gold rush

While falling behind the biggest PD-(L)1 drugs in terms of sales, Roche has looked to carve out a space for its Tecentriq with a growing expertise in lung cancer. The drug will now take an early lead in the sought-after adjuvant setting — but competitors are on the way.

The FDA on Friday approved Tecentriq as an adjuvant therapy for patients with Stage II-IIIA non small cell lung cancer with PD-(L)1 scores greater than or equal to 1, making it the first drug of its kind approved in an early setting that covers around 40% of all NSCLC patients.

Susan Galbraith speaking at Endpoints News' virtual EUBIO21 summit

Imfinzi/treme­li­mum­ab com­bo scores As­traZeneca an­oth­er OS win — this time in liv­er can­cer

Is the tide turning on AstraZeneca’s battered PD-L1/CTLA4 combo?

A single priming dose of the experimental tremelimumab, followed by Imfinzi every four weeks, beat Nexavar (sorafenib) in helping a group of liver cancer patients live longer in a Phase III study, the company reported, meeting the primary endpoint.

Specifically, the two drugs extended overall survival for patients with unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma who had not received prior systemic therapy and were not eligible for localized treatment.

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FDA+ roundup: Marks on Wood­cock­'s tenure as act­ing com­mis­sion­er; FDA lead­ers of­fer per­spec­tive on bar­ri­ers to di­ver­si­ty in re­search

CBER director Peter Marks praised Janet Woodcock’s work as acting FDA commissioner, and while noting that Biden needs to nominate someone to fill the role permanently by Nov. 16, he said he has “no idea” when that actually might occur.

“Dr. Woodcock has been at the agency for over three decades and she, during that time, has proven herself to be a remarkably capable manager,” Marks said at the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine’s meeting Tuesday. “And she’s been managing as if she’s commissioner, unlike some previous acting [commissioners] who are afraid to actually do things. She doesn’t appear to be afraid to do things. I have not felt any different now from when we had a commissioner in place,” he added.

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FDA ad­comm votes unan­i­mous­ly in sup­port of a J&J Covid-19 boost­er two months af­ter one-dose shot

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) on Friday voted 19-0 in favor of authorizing a second shot of J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine to follow at least two months after the initial dose.

Regulators don’t have to follow VRBPAC’s recommendation, but they almost always do. Considering that the CDC’s advisory committee has already been set to review the expanded EUA, VRBPAC’s recommendation is likely to be adopted.