Vik Bajaj (Foresite)

Ex­clu­sive: Vik Ba­jaj set out al­most 2 years ago to hatch new com­pa­nies that would shake up health­care with da­ta sci­ence. Here are 5 di­rec­tions he's tak­ing at Fore­site Labs

If it was clear in late 2019 that the US health­care sys­tem is poised for trans­for­ma­tion, Vik Ba­jaj be­lieves the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic rammed the gas ped­al by lay­ing bare the “fun­da­men­tal in­ef­fi­cien­cies and in­equal­i­ties.”

Take, for in­stance, the idea that the most cost-ef­fec­tive way to treat dis­ease is to catch it ear­ly. That was the mis­sion at Grail, the high-fly­ing can­cer de­tec­tion start­up that he had been CSO of. But at Fore­site, where he’s now man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, they ex­pect­ed wide­spread em­pha­sis on pre­ven­ta­tive care would take about a decade to achieve — as with many of the changes in busi­ness mod­els that they were hop­ing for.

“It’s hap­pen­ing far more quick­ly than I would ever have guessed a few years ago,” he said.

The oth­er dif­fer­ence? Fore­site Labs, the in­cu­ba­tor that he has been spear­head­ing, is now home to five fledg­ling com­pa­nies that would test out some of the oth­er big ideas Ba­jaj and his col­leagues be­lieve would fill crit­i­cal gaps in the health­care sys­tem. And they’ve as­sem­bled a dream team of en­tre­pre­neurs in res­i­dence as well as sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­sors to re­fine those star­tups us­ing the datasets and tools on the nascent plat­form.

With the ex­cep­tion of one, the com­pa­nies are all still in stealth mode. But in an in­ter­view with End­points News, Ba­jaj of­fered a look be­hind the cur­tain of what they are work­ing on.

Ses­ti­na Bio, the on­ly com­pa­ny that’s launched, is a syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy play­er aim­ing to cre­ate sus­tain­able sources for chem­i­cals and ma­te­ri­als through “high-through­put, high-de­f­i­n­i­tion sin­gle cell ex­per­i­ments” in com­bi­na­tion with ma­chine learn­ing al­go­rithms.

Then there are two sep­a­rate ef­forts to take pre­ci­sion med­i­cines out­side of on­col­o­gy — one to au­toim­mune dis­eases and an­oth­er to car­diometa­bol­ic dis­or­ders. A fourth com­pa­ny seeks to map the “pro­tein in­ter­ac­tome” and mod­u­late the way pro­teins in­ter­act with one an­oth­er, while the last is work­ing on col­lat­ing re­al-time, re­al-world da­ta.

Ba­jaj high­light­ed three sea­soned biotech ex­ecs who are help­ing run these ven­tures: June Lee, who helped steer a heart drug tar­get­ed at a ge­net­i­cal­ly de­fined pa­tient pop­u­la­tion as chief de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer at MyoKar­dia (now part of Bris­tol My­ers Squibb); Zach Sweeney, the for­mer De­nali CSO who brings chem­istry ex­per­tise; and Doug Fos­ter, founder of health da­ta ag­gre­ga­tion provider Ve­r­ana Health.

Mov­ing for­ward, he en­vi­sions cre­at­ing a cou­ple of com­pa­nies a year.

“Start­ing 5 com­pa­nies in 18 months has been very in­tense and we’re un­like­ly to start that many at that pace,” Ba­jaj said. “What we con­tin­ue to look for are en­tre­pre­neurs in res­i­dence who want to change this part of the world, change the health­care sys­tem and have the am­bi­tion to be on a plat­form like that. That’s what’s re­al­ly go­ing to gate the num­ber of com­pa­nies that we cre­ate — it’s in find­ing those good re­la­tion­ships and peo­ple who re­al­ly want to adopt some­thing as their mis­sion or come to us with ideas that they think we can help with.”

At the In­flec­tion Point for the Next Gen­er­a­tion of Can­cer Im­munother­a­py

While oncology researchers have long pursued the potential of cellular immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer, it was unclear whether these therapies would ever reach patients due to the complexity of manufacturing and costs of development. Fortunately, the recent successful development and regulatory approval of chimeric antigen receptor-engineered T (CAR-T) cells have demonstrated the significant benefit of these therapies to patients.

All about Omi­cron; We need more Covid an­tivi­rals; GSK snags Pfiz­er’s vac­cine ex­ec; Janet Wood­cock’s fu­ture at FDA; and more

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Lisa Deschamps, AviadoBio CEO

Ex-No­var­tis busi­ness head hops over to a gene ther­a­py start­up — and she's reeled in $80M for a dash to the clin­ic

Neurologist and King’s College London professor Christopher Shaw has been researching neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and collaborating with drugmakers for the last 25 years in the hopes of pushing new therapies forward. But unfortunately, none of those efforts have come anywhere close to fruition.

“So, you know, after 20 years in the game, I said, ‘Let’s try and do it ourselves,’” he told Endpoints News. 

Merck's new antiviral molnupiravir (Quality Stock Arts / Shutterstock)

As Omi­cron spread looms, oral an­tivi­rals ap­pear to be one of the best de­fens­es — now we just need more

After South African scientists reported a new Covid-19 variant — dubbed Omicron by the WHO — scientists became concerned about how effective vaccines and monoclonal antibodies might be against it, which has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein.

“I think it is super worrisome,” Dartmouth professor and Adagio co-founder and CEO Tillman Gerngross told Endpoints News this weekend. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel echoed similar concerns, telling the Financial Times that experts warned him, “This is not going to be good.”

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In­cor­po­rat­ing Ex­ter­nal Da­ta in­to Clin­i­cal Tri­als: Com­par­ing Dig­i­tal Twins to Ex­ter­nal Con­trol Arms

Most drug development professionals are familiar with the nerve-racking wait for the read-out of a large trial. If it’s negative, is the investigational therapy ineffective? Or could the failure result from an unforeseen flaw in the design or execution of the protocol, rather than a lack of efficacy? The team could spend weeks analyzing data, but a definitive answer may be elusive due to insufficient power for such analyses in the already completed trial. These problems are only made worse if the trial had lower enrollment, or higher dropout than expected due to an unanticipated event like COVID-19. And if a trial is negative, the next one is likely to be larger and more costly — if it happens at all.

Ab­b­Vie tacks on a new warn­ing to Rin­voq la­bel as safe­ty frets crimp JAK class

The safety problems that continue to plague the JAK class as new data highlight some severe side effects are casting a large shadow over AbbVie’s Rinvoq.

As a result of a recent readout highlighting major adverse cardiac events (MACE), malignancy, mortality and thrombosis with Xeljanz a couple of months ago, AbbVie put out a notice late Friday afternoon that it is adding the new class risks to its label for their rival drug.

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Biospec­i­men M&A: Dis­cov­ery ac­quires Al­bert Li's he­pa­to­cyte project; PhI­II tri­al on Bay­er's Nube­qa reached pri­ma­ry end­point

Discovery Life Sciences has acquired what claims to be the Maryland-based host of the world’s largest hepatocyte inventory, known as IVAL, to help researchers select more effective and safer drug candidates in the future.

The combined companies will now serve a wider range of drug research and development scientists, according to Albert Li, who founded IVAL in 2004 and is set to join the Discovery leadership team as the CSO of pharmacology and toxicology.

Pfiz­er, Am­gen and Janssen seek fur­ther clar­i­ty on FDA's new ben­e­fit-risk guid­ance

Three top biopharma companies are seeking more details from the FDA on how the agency conducts its benefit-risk assessments for new drugs and biologics.

While Pfizer, Amgen and Janssen praised the agency for further spelling out its thinking on the subject in a new draft guidance, including a discussion of patient experience data as part of the assessment, the companies said the FDA could’ve included more specifics in the 20-page draft document.

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Re­searchers move clos­er to de­ci­pher­ing blood clots from As­traZeneca, J&J's Covid-19 vac­cines

Researchers may be nearing an answer for the mysterious and life-threatening blood clots that appeared on very rare occasions in people who received the J&J or AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.

The new work builds on an early hypothesis researchers in Norway put forward last spring, when the cases first cropped up. They proposed the events were similar to blood clots that can occur in a small subset of patients who receive heparin, one of the most commonly used blood thinners.