Bio Roundup: Moderna’s Billions, Cytokine Bets, Shire Acquired & More

Xconomy National — 

Cytokine therapies for cancer aren’t new but they are attracting renewed interest. Some pharmaceutical companies see drug combinations using cytokines as a way to broaden the reach of immunotherapy, which still doesn’t work for the majority of cancer patients.

This week, Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) showed how much it believes in cytokines. The Indianapolis drug maker reached a deal to acquire Armo BioSciences and its pipeline of cytokine therapies for $1.6 billion in cash. The bid follows other moves by venture capitalists and drugmakers to invest in cytokine cancer drugs, perhaps most notably Bristol-Myers Squibb’s decision to shell out $1.85 billion to split rights to a cytokine treatment from Nektar Therapeutics. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see other similar, strategic bets in the future.

In other news this week, a study evaluating a genetic test for depression raised questions, Novartis’s past dealings with President Trump’s personal attorney came to light, and Xconomy delved into a private biotech’s strategy of raising billions of dollars while staying privately held. Let’s recap those stories and more in our roundup of biotech and pharma news.


—By raising $2.6 billion combined in private financings and partnerships and amassing a spate of clinical programs, Moderna Therapeutics is trying something rare in biotech: building big while remaining private. Xconomy spoke with Moderna and others about the pros and cons of the strategy, as it sets the stage for one of the sector’s most highly anticipated IPOs ever.

Akili Interactive Labs raised a $55 million Series C round as it eyes the potential first-ever FDA approval of a mobile video game meant to treat a disease.

—In the latest pharma mega-merger, rare disease drug maker Shire (NASDAQ: SHPG) agreed to be acquired by Takeda Pharmaceutical in a $62 billion cash and stock deal.

Luna DNA, which aims to let individuals share genetic and health information on their own terms and earn cryptocurrency, has raised $4 million.

—San Diego biotech Escient Pharmaceuticals launched with a $40 million Series A round and a plan to develop drugs that target G Protein-Coupled Receptors.


—Topline data from the most rigorous study to date of the GeneSight depression test, which guides anti-depression prescriptions based on a patient’s genetic profile, was released this week. Xconomy talked to psychiatrists who wanted to see the full data set before endorsing the results.

—Rockefeller University spinout Lodo Therapeutics inked its first deal, a partnership with Genentech to identify and develop novel molecules for a variety of diseases. Xconomy profiled Lodo’s work sequencing the genetic information of microbes in 2016.

—Portola Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: PTLA) won FDA approval for andexanet alfa (Andexxa), a drug that reverses the effect of blood thinners in cases of life-threatening bleeding. The approval also sets the South San Francisco, CA, company up for a $100 million payment under a royalty financing agreement the company signed last year.

—An FDA advisory committee voted 12-8 to recommend volanesorsen (Waylivra), an experimental treatment for a rare genetic disorder from Akcea Therapeutics (NASDAQ: AKCA), a subsidiary of Ionis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: IONS). An FDA decision on the drug is expected by Aug. 30.

—Alder BioPharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALDR) will now submit an approval application for migraine drug eptinezumab in the first quarter of 2019, rather than later this year. In a conference call to discuss quarterly financial results, executives characterized the change as a revised estimate, saying the FDA did not prompt the move or have any problems with the company’s data.

—Roche/Genentech said a combination of its immunotherapy atezolizumab (Tecentriq) and Exelixis’s (NASDAQ: EXEL) cobimetinib (Cotellic) failed a Phase 3 study in advanced colorectal cancer, the latest result in what’s been an up and down year so far for cancer drug combinations.

—MIT Technology Review reported on a stealthy startup co-founded by Harvard University geneticist George Church, Rejuvenate Bio, that aims to use gene therapy to combat aging.


—Evelo Biosciences (NASDAQ: EVLO) raised $85 million in an initial public offering to finance clinical trials of its microbiome drugs in inflammatory diseases and cancer.

—British CAR-T developer Autolus Therapeutics filed paperwork for an IPO on the Nasdaq Exchange.

—China-based Ascletis Pharma became the first biotech company to file for an IPO following a rule change allowing companies that have no profit, or even revenue, to list on the Hong Kong exchange, the South China Morning Post reported. Ascletis is preparing to launch danoprevir, a hepatitis C treatment.


—After making lower drug prices a platform in his presidential campaign, President Donald Trump is now slated to return to the issue in a speech this afternoon. People familiar with the plan told the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s plan includes new rules and an invitation for manufacturers, clinicians, and patients to offer input.

—Novartis (NYSE: NVS) was among the corporations revealed to have paid Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen for consulting work. Novartis said the $1.2 million was arranged under its previous CEO, Joe Jimenez. Current CEO Vas Narasimhan wrote a letter of apology to employees Thursday.

—The FDA filed legal complaints to stop two stem cell clinics from marketing their products without the agency’s approval. Both U.S. Stem Cell and California Stem Cell Treatment Center said they would fight the lawsuit. In a statement posted on its website, U.S. Stem Cell said it believes “the patient and the physician have the right to decide whether or not to use a patient’s own cells for therapeutic purposes without federal government interference.”


—There are just a few days left to grab a ticket for this year’s “What’s Hot in Boston Biotech,” on May 16 at the Broad Institute. On the agenda: an inside look at the early launches of gene therapy and CAR-T, a chat with gene editing pioneer Feng Zhang as human studies of CRISPR-based therapies begin, and more.

Ben Fidler and Alex Lash contributed to this report.

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