June Lee, Esker CEO

Vik Ba­ja­j's start­up in­cu­ba­tor at Fore­site un­cloaks an im­munol­o­gy play­er with a lead TYK2 in­hibitor in tow

Look­ing at a health­care sys­tem made more un­equal by Covid-19, Fore­site Cap­i­tal man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Vik Ba­jaj re­cent­ly kick­start­ed an ex­pan­sive plan to launch five in­no­v­a­tive star­tups to ad­dress un­met need. Just weeks af­ter the first of those biotechs emerged from stealth, a sec­ond has now un­cloaked, and it’s got im­munol­o­gy in its sights.

Es­ker Ther­a­peu­tics launched Wednes­day with a $70 mil­lion Se­ries A to pur­sue pre­ci­sion im­munol­o­gy tar­gets backed by Ba­jaj’s team at Fore­site, the biotech said. Fore­site foot­ed the en­tire round for Es­ker as it con­tin­ues to de­vel­op its pipeline and ad­vance its lead com­pound.

Un­der the lead­er­ship of founder and CEO June Lee, Es­ker is putting ESK-001, a TYK2 in­hibitor first fo­cused on pso­ri­a­sis, through its paces in a Phase I safe­ty and tol­er­a­bil­i­ty study in healthy pa­tients with a read­out ex­pect­ed by year’s end. Those re­sults will help pro­vide proof of con­cept for Es­ker’s dis­cov­ery plat­form, which the biotech hopes to lever­age to iden­ti­fy ge­net­ic tar­gets for pa­tients who have been left be­hind in the “come-one-come-all” im­munol­o­gy mar­ket, Lee told End­points News.

“I re­al­ly am ex­cit­ed by that vi­sion that we start­ed out with,” Lee said. “That we could do bet­ter in im­munol­o­gy than we have been do­ing. We’ve got to do what on­col­o­gy has been do­ing. There are a lot of pa­tients that haven’t been do­ing great, and I think that’s be­cause we fail to rec­og­nize the het­ero­gene­ity in these au­toim­mune con­di­tions.”

Vik Ba­jaj

Plat­form plays are noth­ing new in biotech, but Lee has rea­son to be­lieve in this one, pri­mar­i­ly be­cause of Ba­jaj’s lead­er­ship and mis­sion, she said. Lee al­so tout­ed her team’s pro­gram for TYK2, a sig­nal­ing path­way in the pan-JAK class, which is in the same chem­i­cal class, she said, as Bris­tol My­ers Squibb’s deu­cravac­i­tinib. That drug re­cent­ly won a head-to-head Phase III test against Am­gen’s Ote­zla in pso­ri­a­sis.

Pre­clin­i­cal da­ta have shown the Es­ker mol­e­cule’s promise as a tru­ly se­lec­tive mol­e­cule for TYK2, Lee said, a key as­ser­tion giv­en the on­go­ing safe­ty con­cerns about oth­er JAK in­hibitors, pri­mar­i­ly Pfiz­er’s Xel­janz. Lee knows there are a lot of play­ers out there tout­ing their own “tru­ly se­lec­tive” TYK2 com­pounds, but she thinks Es­ker’s mol­e­cule will even­tu­al­ly pull away from the pack.

“There’s a lot of peo­ple out there claim­ing to have the best com­pound, and it guess it de­pends on what you de­fine as best,” she said. “What I will say is we have a high­ly se­lec­tive TYK2 com­pound that is al­so high­ly de­risked.”

Lee, the for­mer chief de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer at MyoKar­dia who joined the team in Feb­ru­ary, was one of a group of biotech lead­ers tapped as part of Ba­jaj’s ex­pan­sive plan to launch five star­tups uti­liz­ing his team’s en­gine to ad­dress un­met needs across the health­care spec­trum.

Es­ker joins Ses­ti­na Bio, a syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy play­er aim­ing to cre­ate sus­tain­able sources for chem­i­cals and ma­te­ri­als, as the on­ly two of Fore­site Labs’ star­tups re­vealed to the pub­lic so far, but Ba­jaj told End­points last month that the oth­er com­pa­nies will fo­cus on pre­ci­sion med­i­cine in car­diometa­bol­ic dis­or­ders, map­ping the “pro­tein in­ter­ac­tome,” and col­lat­ing re­al-time, re­al-world da­ta.

“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,” Ba­jaj said. “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.”

Es­ker is cur­rent­ly work­ing with a full-time staff of four with plans to ex­pand as part of an “ag­gres­sive growth strat­e­gy” once the com­pa­ny locks in a lease in South San Fran­cis­co that is cur­rent­ly in the works, Lee said. Mean­while, Lee’s team is work­ing with about a dozen con­sul­tants at the start­up.

2023 Spot­light on the Fu­ture of Drug De­vel­op­ment for Small and Mid-Sized Biotechs

In the context of today’s global economic environment, there is an increasing need to work smarter, faster and leaner across all facets of the life sciences industry.  This is particularly true for small and mid-sized biotech companies, many of which are facing declining valuations and competing for increasingly limited funding to propel their science forward.  It is important to recognize that within this framework, many of these smaller companies already find themselves resource-challenged to design and manage clinical studies themselves because they don’t have large teams or in-house experts in navigating the various aspects of the drug development journey. This can be particularly challenging for the most complex and difficult to treat diseases where no previous pathway exists and patients are urgently awaiting breakthroughs.

Spe­cial re­port 2022: Meet 20 women blaz­ing trails in bio­phar­ma R&D

When you run a special report for a fourth year, it can start feeling a little bit like a ritual. You go through the motions — in our case opening up nominations for top women in biopharma R&D and reviewing more than 500 entries — you make your choices of inclusion and exclusion. You host a ceremony.

But then things happen that remind you why you do it in the first place. Perhaps a Supreme Court rules to overturn the constitutional right to abortion and a group of women biotech leaders makes it clear they strongly dissent; perhaps new data on gender diversity in the industry come out that look all too similar to the old ones, suggesting women are still dramatically underrepresented at the top; perhaps protests and conflicts around the world put in stark terms the struggles that many women still face in earning the most basic recognition.

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Graphic: Shutterstock

Prometheus moves to raise cash hours af­ter PhII da­ta leads to stock surge

After releasing better-than-anticipated data on two mid-stage studies Wednesday morning, Prometheus Biosciences’ CEO said the company would “take some time to assess” its next financing options.

It only needed about seven hours. Wednesday afternoon after the market closed, the biotech announced it would seek $250 million through an equity offering as the company looks to edge out anti-TL1A competitor Pfizer and its new partner Roivant.

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Kristen Hege, Bristol Myers Squibb SVP, early clinical development, oncology/hematology and cell therapy (Illustration: Assistant Editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News)

Q&A: Bris­tol My­er­s' Kris­ten Hege on cell ther­a­py, can­cer pa­tients and men­tor­ing the next gen­er­a­tion

Kristen Hege leads Bristol Myers Squibb’s early oncology discovery program carrying on from the same work at Celgene, which was acquired by BMS in 2019. She’s known for her early work in CAR-T, having pioneered the first CAR-T cell trial for solid tumors more than 25 years ago.

However, the eminent physician-scientist is more than just a drug developer mastermind. She’s also a practicing physician, mother to two young women, an avid backpacker and intersecting all those interests — a champion of young women and people of color in STEM and life sciences.

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Gossamer Bio CEO Faheem Hasnain at Endpoints' #BIO22 panel (J.T. MacMillan Photography for Endpoints News)

Gos­samer’s Fa­heem Has­nain de­fends a round of pos­i­tive PAH da­ta as a clear win. But can these PhII re­sults stand up to scruti­ny?

Gossamer Bio $GOSS posted a statistically significant improvement for its primary endpoint in the key Phase II TORREY trial for lead drug seralutinib on Tuesday morning. But CEO Faheem Hasnain has some explaining to do on the important secondary of the crucial six-minute walk distance test — which will be the primary endpoint in Phase III — as the data on both endpoints fell short of expectations, missing one analyst’s bar on even modest success.

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Alex Martinez, Intrinsic Medicine CEO

They with­drew their IPO. Then, they broke off their SPAC merg­er. Now what?

If at first an IPO doesn’t succeed, try, try a SPAC. But what happens when that fails too?

Intrinsic Medicine and its blank-check partner Phoenix Biotech Acquisition Corp. called off their reverse merger Tuesday night, citing “current market conditions” as the reason it went kaput. The pair decoupled just weeks after agreeing to combine in late October as investors’ appetite for new IPOs and SPACs has been limited, at best.

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Jay Lichter, Arialys Therapeutics CEO (Avalon Ventures)

Scoop: Aval­on, MPM back new CNS biotech with sci­en­tif­ic chops from Astel­las

A preclinical central nervous system biotech is in the works in La Jolla, CA, and the drug developer has reeled in capital from a syndicate of investors, Endpoints News has learned.

Arialys Therapeutics filed incorporation documents in the Golden State last December and applied its name for trademark protection with the US Patent and Trademark Office the week prior to that. Paperwork with the SEC also outlines plans to offer up equity in exchange for $55 million.

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Piper Trelstad, head of CMC, Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute

Q&A with Gates leader: Women tak­ing on more roles in phar­ma man­u­fac­tur­ing, but still work to do

More and more women are driving innovation and taking leadership roles in biotech – as evidenced today in the release of Endpoints News’ list of the top 20 women in the R&D world – but those gains are beginning to extend across pharma sectors.

In pharma manufacturing in the US today, around 46% of all roles are occupied by women, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2021. And according to a Bloomberg report, women’s roles across manufacturing roles had a massive boost after the start of the pandemic.

Phar­ma rep­u­ta­tion re­tains 'halo' even as pan­dem­ic me­dia cov­er­age re­cedes — sur­vey

The Covid-19 halo effect on the pharma industry is continuing, according to a new global study from Ipsos. The annual survey for the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) finds considerable goodwill from consumers across measures of trust, cooperation with governments, and advancing research and drug development.

“Despite the pandemic in many countries no longer being the top of mind concern generally – although it does remain the top concern as a health issue – the industry’s reputation has remained positive,” said Ipsos research director Thomas Fife-Schaw.

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