Bio Roundup: ASCO Opens, Merck Takes On COVID, Evofem’s Approval & More

Xconomy National — 

A year ago about 40,000 people gathered in Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Today a virtual version of the ASCO conference, the cancer field’s largest, kicks off, with oncologists and others tuning in from throughout the country and around the world to check out the latest in cancer research.

ASCO 2020 won’t be the Windy City gathering it usually is, but drug and diagnostics developers are still raring to share fresh data from their efforts in cancer immunotherapy, targeted treatments, and early-stage screening methods during the course of the three-day scientific program.

While oncology companies geared up for ASCO, the rest of the industry didn’t take much of a breather. A handful of new venture-backed companies debuted, four biotechs spelled out plans to go public, a biopharma announced details of a multi-pronged approach to COVID-19, and the FDA approved a new kind of contraceptive. All that, and more, in this week’s roundup. Let’s get to it.


More life science companies filed paperwork to go public, with Generation Bio, Vaxcyte, Burning Rock Biotech, and Avidity Biosciences adding their names to the IPO queue.

—South San Francisco-based Insitro raised a $143 million Series B  round led by Andreessen Horowitz to advance its plans to rework drug discovery and development using the latest life sciences and data science technologies.

—AbCellera, which invented technology to speed up the process of antibody discovery, added $105 million in Series B cash to hire about 100 more people and expand its R&D footprint in Vancouver, BC.

—ViaCyte banked $27 million more in outside financing, most of it money from a Series D round that closed in 2018, to continue advancing its stem cell-based diabetes therapies.

—Monte Rosa Therapeutics debuted out of Versant Ventures’ incubator in Switzerland with a $32.5M Series A round and a new approach to searching for protein degradation drugs.

—Deerfield Management said it will invest up to $130 million over the next decade in biomedical research at the University of Michigan. The investment firm’s aim is to turn therapeutic projects into potentially life-saving drugs and disease treatments.

—Allievex closed a Series A round of financing but didn’t say how much it raised. The Marblehead, MA-based company plans to use the cash to fund Phase 2 tests of tralesinidase alfa, an experimental Sanfilippo syndrome type B enzyme replacement therapy whose rights it acquired from BioMarin Pharmaceutical (NASDAQ: BMRN).


—Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) is committing $375 million up front to Arcus Biosciences (NASDAQ: RCUS) to kick off a 10-year partnership developing cancer drugs from the biotech’s pipeline.

—Cambridge, MA-based Q32 Bio launched with a $46 million Series A round of funding to support development of drugs that treat autoimmune and inflammatory disorders by restoring immune system regulation.

—Bristol Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMYis paying Repare Therapeutics $65 million up front to start a partnership on cancer drugs. Cambridge, MA, and Montreal-based Repare has technology for discovering drugs that exploit a genetic tumor vulnerability.

—Japanese pharma giant Shionogi agreed to pay up to $500 million to buy Grand Rapids, MI-based Tetra Therapeutics and its central nervous system disorder drug. Earlier this year, the companies announced a partnership to develop and potentially commercialize the drug, BPN14770, in Alzheimer’s disease.

—Seattle-based Variant Bio closed a $16 million Series A round to support R&D plans to find new drugs by analyzing the genes of understudied populations from across the globe.

—Sanofi (NYSE: SNY) plans to sell its 20 percent ownership stake in partner Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: REGN). The France-based pharmaceutical giant says the transaction will not affect their ongoing collaboration, and Regeneron will buy back some of the shares.

—Sensei Biotherapeutics acquired Seattle-based biotech Alvaxa Biosciences, a Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center spinout that develops camelid antibodies, also known as nanobodies. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.


—Evofem Biosciences (NASDAQ: EVFM) received FDA approval for its new kind of contraceptive, a combination of lactic acid, citric acid, and potassium bitartrate (Phexxi) that offers women a non-hormonal option for use up to an hour prior to intercourse.

—Intercept Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ICPT) announced that an FDA request for more information on its investigational treatment for liver fibrosis due to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) would delay the agency’s anticipated late July ruling.

—The FDA granted Frederick, Maryland-based Amivas approval to market intravenous artesunate as an initial treatment of severe malaria in adult and pediatric patients. Outside of the US, IV artesunate is widely used to treat the mosquito-borne disease.

—Bristol Myers Squibb received the green light from the FDA for its combination immunotherapy—nivolumab (Opdivo) and ipilimumab (Yervoy)—plus two cycles of chemotherapy as an initial treatment for some patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer.

—Ozanimod (Zeposia), a Bristol Myers Squibb multiple sclerosis drug, was approved by the European Commission. The decision comes two months after the FDA approved the once-daily pill.

—FDA approval of moderate-to-severe atopic dermatitis drug dupilumab (Dupixent) was expanded to include children ages 6 to 11. The biologic drug, marketed by Sanofi and Regeneron, was approved for treating atopic dermatitis in adults in 2017, and in teens last year.


—Merck (NYSE: MRK) said it would acquire a vaccine maker, partner with a nonprofit organization focused on vaccines, and collaborate with Florida biotech Ridgeback Biotherapeutics as part of its multi-pronged approach to addressing COVID-19. The deals bring preclinical and clinical-stage candidates.

—GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) says it plans to manufacture 1 billion doses of its pandemic adjuvant to boost the immune response of vaccines currently in development by its partners. To date, the pharmaceutical giant is working with Vir Biotechnology (NASDAQ: VIR) and Sanofi.

—Vaccine developer Novavax (NASDAQ: NVAX) paid $167 million to acquire Praha Vaccines, including its Czech Republic-based manufacturing facility. Gaithersburg, MD-based Novavax says the site has the capacity to produce about 1 billion doses of antigen for the company’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate, which started a Phase 1 test this week.

—Ginkgo Bioworks raised $70 million to build an epidemic response facility at its Boston headquarters intended to support the large-scale COVID-19 testing needed to help schools and businesses reopen.

—Malvern, PA and San Diego-based PhaseBio Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: PHAS) received FDA authorization to evaluate its investigational cardiopulmonary drug, PB1046, in a Phase 2 study testing it as a treatment for hospitalized COVID-19 patients at high risk for respiratory failure due to lung injury.


Sierra Oncology (NASDAQ: SRRA) appointed Stephen Dilly CEO… William Delany is joining Assembly Biosciences (NASDAQ: ASMB) as chief scientific officer…Immunomedics (NASDAQ: IMMU) CEO Harout Semerjian resigned… Atara Biotherapeutics (NASDAQ: ATRA) named Jakob Dupont global head of R&D… the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance added Barbara Tate as chief scientific officer… RenovaCare promoted Robin Robinson to the role of chief scientific officer… and Ipsen tapped Sanofi executive David Loew to become its new CEO.

Frank Vinluan contributed to this report.

Image: iStock/DanielleJenna