Ver­sant-backed Chi­nook gets a $65M launch round for its dis­cov­ery quest in a resur­gent kid­ney field

Ver­sant is once again step­ping off the beat­en track in biotech to see if they can blaze a trail of their own in a field that has looked too thorny to many in­vestors for years.

The ven­ture group and their part­ners at Ap­ple Tree are bring­ing their lat­est cre­ation out of stealth mode to­day. Born in Ver­sant’s In­cep­tion Sci­ences’ Chi­nook Ther­a­peu­tics is bet­ting that its pre­clin­i­cal take on kid­ney dis­ease can get an ear­ly lead among the com­pa­nies start­ing up in the field.

Head­ed by Er­ic Dob­meier, who left his post as COO of Seat­tle Ge­net­ics to take up the life of a biotech en­tre­pre­neur, Chi­nook is pur­su­ing a pipeline of pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams born in the be­lief that a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of bi­ol­o­gy, new tech tools and a sup­port­ive FDA of­fer­ing ac­cel­er­at­ed path­ways is all a new recipe for suc­cess in the pur­suit of pre­ci­sion med­i­cines fo­cused on unique pa­tient pop­u­la­tions.

We don’t know what these drugs are, or specif­i­cal­ly what they are tar­get­ing, yet. But Ver­sant and the Chi­nook team be­lieve they will be in the clin­ic in 2021 when it can say a lot more.

For now, they’re hap­py to stay fo­cused on a resur­gent field lit­tered with the corpses of failed drugs.

Jer­el Davis Ver­sant

“It re­minds me of NASH and liv­er dis­ease 4-plus years ago,” says Ver­sant man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Jer­el Davis. Now phar­ma has be­gun set­ting up its own groups to tack­le the field, and he wants in on the ground floor.

Dob­meier has a $65 mil­lion A round and a team of 25 to lead for­ward. You may re­call that Dob­meier’s first biotech gig out of Seat­tle Ge­net­ics was with a com­pa­ny called Sil­ver­back. But they ex­pe­ri­enced an ear­ly set­back, says the biotech ex­ec, and he ex­it­ed the com­pa­ny — join­ing Chi­nook back in April.

Ver­sant and Ap­ple Tree were joined by Sam­sara Bio­Cap­i­tal on the launch round.

The Ver­sant team has made a habit of try­ing to get an ear­ly jump on emerg­ing R&D fields. That strat­e­gy, which in­volves cre­at­ing dis­cov­ery teams in some off-beat places like Van­cou­ver, in­clud­ed their re­gen­er­a­tive stem cell play Blue­Rock, which Bay­er just bought out at a uni­corn val­u­a­tion.

They’re fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of com­pa­nies like Goldfinch, a Third Rock start­up in the class of 2016 that re­cent­ly teamed with Gilead on its ap­proach to kid­ney dis­ease. That heav­i­ly back-end­ed deal helped in­spire Ver­sant to go deep­er. An­oth­er com­pa­ny in the field is Rea­ta, which was once al­lied with Ab­b­Vie — ahead of a clin­i­cal im­plo­sion that they’ve been work­ing to re­cov­er from. 

Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House (Photo: AFP)

Trump’s HHS claims ab­solute au­thor­i­ty over the FDA, clear­ing path to a vac­cine EUA

The top career staff at the FDA has vowed not to let politics overrule science when looking at vaccine data this fall. But Alex Azar, who happens to be their boss’s boss, apparently won’t even give them a chance to stand in the way.

In a new memorandum issued Tuesday last week, the HHS chief stripped the FDA and other health agencies under his purview of their rule making ability, asserting all such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times first obtained and reported the details of the September 15 bulletin.

President Donald Trump (via AP Images)

Signs of an 'Oc­to­ber Vac­cine Sur­prise' alarm ca­reer sci­en­tists

President Donald Trump, who seems intent on announcing a COVID-19 vaccine before Election Day, could legally authorize a vaccine over the objections of experts, officials at the FDA and even vaccine manufacturers, who have pledged not to release any vaccine unless it’s proved safe and effective.

In podcasts, public forums, social media and medical journals, a growing number of prominent health leaders say they fear that Trump — who has repeatedly signaled his desire for the swift approval of a vaccine and his displeasure with perceived delays at the FDA — will take matters into his own hands, running roughshod over the usual regulatory process.

#ES­MO20: Push­ing in­to front­line, Mer­ck and Bris­tol My­ers duke it out with new slate of GI can­cer da­ta

Having worked in parallel for years to move their respective PD-1 inhibitors up to the first-line treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb finally have the data at ESMO for a showdown.

Comparing KEYNOTE-590 and CheckMate-649, of course, comes with the usual caveats. But a side-by-side look at the overall survival numbers also offer some perspective on a new frontier for the reigning checkpoint rivals, both of whom are claiming to have achieved a first.

UP­DAT­ED: Two wild weeks for Grail end in $8B Il­lu­mi­na buy­out

Grail’s whirlwind two weeks have ended in the wealthy arms of its former founder and benefactors.

Illumina has shelled out $8 billion to reacquire the closely-watched liquid biopsy startup they spun out just 5 years ago and sold off much of its shares just 3 years ago. The deal comes nearly two weeks after the well-heeled startup filed for a potentially massive IPO — one that was disrupted just a week later when Bloomberg reported that Illumina was in talks to buy their former spinout for up to $8 billion.

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Roche vaults to the front of the NL­RP3 clin­i­cal race, pay­ing $448M up­front to bag In­fla­zome

Roche is going all in on NLRP3.

The pharma giant is putting down $448 million (€380 million) upfront to snatch Novartis-backed Inflazome, which makes it a clinical player in the space overnight.

Dublin and Cambridge, UK-based Inflazome is the second NLRP3-focused biotech Roche has acquired in less than two years, and although no numbers were disclosed in the Jecure buyout, this is almost certainly a much larger deal.

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Anthony Fauci (AP Images)

A press of­fi­cer at An­tho­ny Fau­ci’s NI­AID was un­masked as a hard-right Covid troll. He just re­tired to­day

William B Crews had been a public affairs specialist at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

That ended today when he informed the agency of his decision to retire, after he was identified as the managing editor at RedState, a prominent Trump loyalist website.

Crews’ RedState duties are performed under the alias streiff. While enjoying the benefits of pseudonymity, he disparaged and worked against NIAID with an incendiary level of rhetoric in the midst of a pandemic.

#ES­MO20: Bris­tol My­ers marks Op­di­vo's sec­ond ad­ju­vant win — eye­ing a stan­dard of care gap

Moving into earlier and earlier treatment lines, Bristol Myers Squibb is reporting that adjuvant treatment with Opdivo has doubled the time that esophageal or gastroesophageal junction cancer patients stay free of disease.

With the CheckMate-577 data at ESMO, CMO Samit Hirawat said, the company believes it can change the treatment paradigm.

While a quarter to 30% of patients typically achieve a complete response following chemoradiation therapy and surgery, the rest do not, said Ronan Kelly of Baylor University Medical Center. The recurrence rate is also high within the first year, Hirawat added.

Donald Trump, AP

Covid-19 roundup: Trump sug­gests Pfiz­er vac­cine could be first ap­proved; VBI Vac­cines inks de­vel­op­ment deal with Cana­da

President Donald Trump commented Monday morning that Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate could be the first to win approval by regulators.

During an interview on a Fox News’ morning show, the president said Pfizer was doing “very well” when asked which candidate could be approved, according to a Reuters report. He added that J&J could follow up afterward, saying “they’ll probably be a little later.”

Is­raeli biotech rais­es $57M to go where cur­rent BRAF in­hibitors can't, with back­ing from No­var­tis, SR One

For the blockbuster potential of Novartis’ Tafinlar and Pfizer’s Braftovi, all the BRAF inhibitors on the market so far only target V600 mutations — which accounts for roughly 50% of patients.

Israeli biotech Novellus now has $57 million to develop a drug that they say can help the other 50% who have everything else.

The Series C will fund a Phase II trial for PLX-8394, a “paradox breaker” that could block RAF without activating MAPK signaling. In a Phase I trial, a patient with a BRAF fusion saw their tumor go away after taking the drug, allowing Novellus to hit the ground running.