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BioPharma

Breast cancer cells

Athenex’s lead drug candidate, an oral formulation of the chemotherapy paclitaxel, is intended to bring patients comparable, if not better, efficacy and fewer side effects than the intravenous version. But the company now faces questions about the drug’s safety in the wake of an FDA rejection.

Buffalo, New York-based Athenex announced the rejection of the cancer drug Monday. According to the company, the regulator recommended the biotech conduct a new clinical trial in metastatic breast cancer patients. The agency also suggested the company take steps to mitigate the drug’s toxicity.

Shares of Athenex fell sharply after the FDA rejection was announced, and closed Monday at $5.46 apiece, down nearly 55% from Friday’s closing stock price.

Paclitaxel, also known as Taxol, is a widely used chemotherapy for treating breast, ovarian, and lung cancers. Intravenous dosing of the drug can cause adverse reactions. To mitigate those effects, cancer patients are given steroids and antihistamines prior to dosing of the chemotherapy. Other side effects of intravenous paclitaxel include nerve damage, hair loss, and neutropenia, which is an abnormally low level of a type of white blood cell called neutrophils. Those side effects may reduce how much of a dose of the chemotherapy a patient can receive.

Athenex’s version of paclitaxel is given in combination with another drug, encequidar. According to the company, this compound blocks a protein in the intestinal wall that limits the absorption of chemotherapies. In results of a Phase 3 study testing Athenex’s oral paclitaxel in patients with metastatic breast cancer, the company reported its drug met the main goal of showing statistically significant improvement in the overall response rate compared against treatment with the IV version of the chemotherapy.

The company also reported that its drug can reach levels in the blood comparable to IV paclitaxel, and for a longer period of time. The company said in securities filings that this capability may translate to a better clinical response to the therapy. In the 402-patient Phase 3 study, Athenex observed a higher tumor response rate along with lower incidence and severity of nerve problems compared to IV paclitaxel.

Athenex said that the agency’s complete response letter cited the risk of an increase in problems related to neutropenia in the oral paclitaxel arm compared with the group treated with the IV formulation. The FDA also expressed concern about how the results of the study primary endpoint were evaluated under blinded independent central review, a group of independent physicians. According to Athenex, the FDA said there may have been “unmeasured bias and influence” on the review.

Speaking on a conference call, CEO Johnson Lau said the company was “surprised and extremely disappointed” by the FDA’s rejection. The neutropenia concerns cited are a known risk of paclitaxel, he said. Lau added that the review remained blinded, was conducted by independent radiologists, and the regulator had not issued any formal warnings flagging problems at the imaging lab.

The FDA’s recommendation that Athenex conduct another clinical trial specified that the study should include patients more representative of the U.S. population. Rudolf Kwan, the company’s chief medical officer, said on the call that none of the clinical trial sites were in the U.S. But he added that the company had discussed the clinical trial design with the regulator, and the single study, as proposed by the company, was understood to be sufficient to support approval if the results were positive.

Lau said that the company plans to request a meeting with the FDA to discuss the letter and clarify the scope of the new clinical trial needed to address the agency’s concerns.

“Whether it requires the whole study be done in U.S., we’ll have to clarify in the meeting,” Lau said.

Though Athenex has a pipeline of clinical-stage cancer therapies, company currently generates most of its revenue from the sales of generic injectable products. In 2020, it reported more than $105 million in product sales, a 73% increase over 2019 sales. In its financial report of fourth quarter 2020 and full-year results, Athenex attributed the revenue increase to growing sales of specialty pharmaceutical products used to treat hospitalized Covid-19 patients. As of Dec. 31, 2020, Athenex had $86.1 million in cash and $138.6 million in short-term investments.

Photo by American Cancer Society/Getty Images

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The FDA has authorized Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use, adding a third vaccination option—one that comes with storage and distribution advantages.

The regulatory decision followed the review of an FDA advisory panel, which voted unanimously on Friday to recommend authorization of the vaccine. J&J said it has begun shipping its vaccines to the federal government, which will manage distribution. The company expects to deliver enough vials for the vaccination of more than 20 million people in the U.S. by the end of March, ramping up to 100 million vaccinations by mid-year.

The J&J shot joins the messenger RNA vaccines developed by Moderna and partners Pfizer and BioNTech as the only authorized Covid vaccines in the U.S. The mRNA vaccines must be transported and stored at ultra-cold temperatures well below temperatures of typical medical freezer equipment. However, vaccination sites now have a little more flexibility in how they can store mRNA vaccines. Last week, the FDA approved a request from Pfizer and BioNTech to permit storage of their vaccine at pharmaceutical-grade freezers for up to two weeks.

The J&J vaccine can be transported and stored at refrigerator temperatures, making it a better option for rural areas or vaccination sites that don’t have the specialized freezer equipment required to store the mRNA vaccines. It has the additional advantage of being a single shot, unlike the mRNA vaccines that are given as two doses weeks apart. A single shot avoids the challenges of getting people to return for a second injection.

“The potential to significantly reduce the burden of severe disease, by providing an effective and well-tolerated vaccine with just one immunization, is a critical component of the global public health response,” Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer, said in a prepared statement. “A one-shot vaccine is considered by the World Health Organization to be the best option in pandemic settings, enhancing access, distribution and compliance.

The J&J vaccine uses a virus to fight a virus. The company’s Janssen subsidiary takes adenovirus, which causes the common cold, and engineers it so that it cannot replicate and does not cause illness. This engineered virus becomes the vehicle that transports into cells a piece of DNA from SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus. Cells use that genetic material to make the spike protein found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2. Those proteins spark the immune response that leads to immunity. This vaccine technology, which J&J calls AdVac, is the basis of the company’s Ebola vaccine, which was approved by the FDA in 2019.

The FDA authorization for J&J’s Covid vaccine was based on results from a global, placebo-controlled Phase 3 study that enrolled nearly 44,000 volunteers. Those participants were followed for a median of eight weeks. The main goal of the study was to evaluate the first occurrence of moderate-to-severe Covid infection with the onset of symptoms after 14 days, and then after the 28-day mark.

Overall, the J&J vaccine was about 67% effective in preventing moderate-to-severe or critical Covid infection after two weeks. After 28 days, the vaccine was about 66% effective at preventing infection. The FDA added that the J&J vaccine was about 77% effective in preventing severe or critical illness two weeks after vaccination. After 28 days, the vaccine was 85% effective in preventing severe or critical illness.

The most common side effects reported from the studies were pain at the injection site, headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, and nausea. The FDA said these side effects were mostly mild to moderate and lasted for a day or two. J&J does not yet have enough data to determine how long protection from the vaccine lasts. The studies conducted to date also do not show whether the vaccine stops people from transmitting the virus. As part of the emergency authorization, J&J must continue to collect data about its vaccine and report and serious adverse events.

The J&J vaccine is given as a 0.5 mL intramuscular injection. The vaccine is shipped in vials, each containing five doses. The company estimates the vaccine will remain stable for two years stored at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius). At refrigerator temperatures in the range of 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit (2 to 8 degrees Celsius), the company says the vaccine can be stored for up to three months. The company will deliver the vaccine with the same cold chain currently used to ship its other medicines.

The federal government will manage the allocation and distribution of the J&J vaccine according to guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Johnson & Johnson said that it plans file an application seeking a formal FDA approval later this year. The company is also seeking authorizations for its vaccine in other markets.

Photo: Esben_H, Getty Images

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The U.S. is one step closer to making available another Covid-19 vaccine after a panel of experts voted unanimously Friday to recommend emergency use authorization for a shot developed by Johnson & Johnson.

The independent panel, comprised of mostly physicians, voted 22-0 to support the vaccine with no one abstaining. These votes aren’t binding on the FDA, but the agency often follows the recommendations of its panels. A decision could come as early as this weekend. The two Covid vaccines currently cleared for emergency use received their authorizations the day after their respective advisory panel meetings.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine would offer an alternative to the ones currently available from the Pfizer and BioNtech alliance, and Moderna. Those messenger RNA vaccines must be distributed and stored at ultra-cold temperatures, then thawed before use. Those shots are given as two doses, weeks apart. The J&J vaccine can be kept at refrigerator temperatures. Another key difference is that the J&J jab requires a single shot. Together, those features will make the J&J vaccine easier to distribute to more people in more places through distribution channels that are already in place.

Panel members expressed support for the J&J vaccine, saying that the safety and efficacy data supported its authorization. But panelists also cautioned the public against picking vaccine favorites.

“It’s important that people do not think one vaccine is better than another,” said Cody Meissner, an infectious disease expert and professor of pediatrics at the Tufts University School of Medicine. “There is no preference for one vaccine over another and all vaccines work with what appears to be equal safety and equal efficacy as of this time.”

Emergency authorization is not the same as an approval. Federal law permits the FDA to allow marketing of unapproved medical products for emergency situations, such as a pandemic. Authorizations only last for the duration of the emergency. These authorizations can also be revoked if new data show that the product is not safe or effective. Stanley Perlman, a professor in the departments of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa, said that while the clinical studies to date have produced data about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, it would be “nice to have more.”

The J&J vaccine may be new, but compared to the mRNA vaccines, the technology behind it has bit of a longer track record. J&J vaccine makes it using its AdVac technology, the same platform that produced the company’s Ebola vaccine, which the FDA approved in 2019. The technology takes the virus that causes the common cold and modifies it so it doesn’t cause illness. That engineered virus is the delivery vehicle that ferries into cells a snippet of genetic code for the novel coronavirus’s spike protein. The genetic material serves as the blueprint from which the body’s cells produce spike proteins. The immune system responds by producing antibodies to those proteins, conferring immunity.

The clinical data to date for J&J Covid vaccine covers 44,000 adults from all over the world. In Phase 3 data reported in late January, the vaccine was 66% effective overall in preventing moderate-to-severe infection, 28 days after vaccination. Furthermore, the vaccine showed 85% efficacy in preventing severe disease, and showed complete protection against Covid-related hospitalization and death, also measured at day 28.

Those marks look inferior to the greater than 90% efficacy demonstrated in mRNA vaccine trials. But cross-trial comparisons are difficult and can be misleading because trials have different designs and different goals. Also, the mRNA studies were conducted earlier in the year when there were fewer variants circulating. Public health experts have said that if those vaccines were tested under current conditions, their efficacy rates might be lower, too.

Plans are already underway to gather more data about J&J’s shot, including a study of the vaccine in children and teens. Johan Van Hoof, the global head of the infectious diseases and vaccines for J&J’s Janssen subsidiary, told the advisory panel that a clinical trial testing the vaccine in those 17 and younger is expected to begin this spring. He also said that the company is assessing how the vaccine responds to variants of the novel coronavirus.

Shortly after Friday’s meeting, the FDA issued a statement saying that it would “rapidly work” with J&J toward finalization and issuance of an emergency use authorization. The agency added that it has notified federal partners involved in the allocation and distribution of vaccines, so that they are ready.

Photo: Getty Images, Sezeryadigar

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Vial and syringe with a vaccine

Clover Biopharmaceuticals, a clinical-stage firm developing a Covid-19 vaccine with potential manufacturing and distribution advantages over other vaccine technologies, has raised $230 million as it prepares to advance its lead candidate into pivotal testing.

Chengdu, China-based Clover said Tuesday that it expects to start a global Phase 2/3 clinical trial for its vaccine candidate, SCB-2019, in the first half of this year. The company added that it has already started planning for the production of potentially hundreds of millions of vaccine doses.

The Clover Covid-19 vaccine is protein-based. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 infection, is an enveloped RNA virus—the outer coating is dotted with spike proteins that bind to a receptor on the host cell. These spikes are trimeric, meaning they’re formed by three proteins.

Using its Trimer-Tag technology, Clover developed a trimeric spike protein that resembles the one found on the outer envelope of the novel coronavirus. The vaccine uses an adjuvant, an ingredient that boosts immune response, supplied by Dynavax Technologies.

As a protein-based vaccine similar to many of the vaccines developed for influenza, shingles, and hepatitis B, Clover said production can use manufacturing processes that are already well established. The company added that this production can be rapidly scaled up to large quantities.

Another advantage of the Clover vaccines are the temperature requirements. The company said its vaccines and adjuvant should be stable for long periods at refrigerator temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. At room temperature, Clover has said its vaccines are stable for at least two months. Those temperature and storage requirements stand in contrast to messenger RNA vaccines, which must be distributed frozen and stored at temperatures well below what medical-grade freezers can achieve. Last week, Pfizer and BioNTech asked the FDA to approve a change in the storage temperatures permitted once vaccines reach a vaccination site.

The new financing follows publication in The Lancet earlier this month of peer-reviewed results from an early-stage test of two Clover Covid-19 vaccine candidates. The 150-patient study showed that the vaccines were well tolerated and safe. Both vaccines also induced neutralizing antibodies at levels comparable to or higher than those found in the blood of those who have recovered from Covid-19.

Clover said that its research includes vaccines that could address multiple variants of the novel coronavirus. In addition to supporting its Covid-19 vaccines, Clover said the new capital will support plans to advance multiple programs into human testing later this year. Other vaccines in the Clover pipeline include programs for rabies and influenza. The company also said it plans to expand its manufacturing and capabilities.

GL Ventures and Temasek both led the Series C financing. Oceeanpine Capital, OrbiMed, and Delos Capital also invested. Clover said it has raised more than $400 million in the past year.

Clover also has financial support from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which has committed to finance development of the company’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate up through licensure with a total investment of $328 million. Some of that cash will fund the global Phase 2/3 study. If the Clover vaccine is shown to be safe and effective, it would be distributed through Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, or COVAX, the World Health Organization’s initiative to ensure equitable vaccine access throughout the world.

Public domain photo by Flickr user Alachua County

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Pfizer and BioNTech are asking the FDA to approve a change that would permit storage of their Covid-19 vaccine within a temperature range found in medical-grade freezers.

To be clear, this proposed change doesn’t eliminate the need for ultra-cold temperatures as the vaccine moves throughout the supply chain—temperatures that require specialized equipment. Those storage requirements are a barrier to its distribution because not all facilities have equipment that can achieve the required temperatures. What Pfizer and BioNTech are proposing is that when the vaccine reaches its destination, such as a hospital or pharmacy, it could be stored for up to two weeks at (relatively) warmer freezer temperatures.

The FDA granted emergency use authorization to the messenger RNA vaccine, named Comirnaty, last December. According to the product’s label, the vaccine must be stored in ultra-cold temperatures between minus 112 degrees and minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 80 degrees and minus 60 degrees Celsius). At those temperatures, the vaccine can last up to six months. Pfizer ships the vaccines in specially designed containers that can be refilled with dry ice every five days. Those containers can serve as temporary storage for up to 30 days.

The vaccine can be stored at refrigerator temperatures for up to five days. Pfizer and BioNTech are asking the FDA to approve an additional option to store the vaccine at minus 13 degrees to 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 25 degrees to minus 15 degrees Celsius) for two weeks. That range would put it closer to the storage requirements for the mRNA vaccine from Moderna. The temperature range Pfizer and BioNTech are proposing would be in addition to the five days at refrigerator temperatures that is currently permitted under the authorization.

“If approved, this new storage option would offer pharmacies and vaccination centers greater flexibility in how they manage their vaccine supply,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a prepared statement.

Pfizer and BioNTech are proposing the additional temperature option based on new data about their vaccine’s stability. The data span from the earliest clinical trials up to batches currently in production.

Messenger RNA vaccines are a new technology that employ a snippet of genetic material from the novel coronavirus. This mRNA serve as a blueprint that a cell’s protein-making machinery use make the characteristic spike protein found on the surface of the novel coronavirus. That protein is what triggers an immune response and confers immunity.

Though mRNA vaccines are administered at room temperature, they must be kept at ultra-cold temperatures in the supply chain because mRNA is fragile. The extremely cold temperatures keep the components of the vaccine from breaking down. As mRNA companies study the storage data they have for vaccines, they are getting a better understanding of how long these vaccines can last at certain temperatures. Last November, Moderna released data that it said supported storage of its vaccine at refrigerator temperatures for up to 30 days.

Temperature requirements can be a barrier to the distribution of the vaccine to rural areas, which may not have facilities with appropriate freezers. In that regard, the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine is seen as offering an advantage. In addition to requiring only a single shot (both authorized mRNA vaccines require two), the J&J vaccine can be stored at standard refrigerator temperatures. An FDA advisory committee is scheduled to hold a hearing about that vaccine on Feb. 26.

Photo by BioNTech

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Paula Soteropoulos

Gene therapy may offer potential cures, but its promise comes with a price. Some experimental approaches require a multi-step process to prepare stem cells for the procedure—a burden to a patient and to the healthcare system, according to Paula Soteropoulos, executive chair of startup Ensoma.

Soteropoulos’s company is proposing an alternative. The Boston-based biotech is developing technology that won’t require hospitalization in a specialized medical center. Furthermore, the Ensoma technology does its therapeutic work in vivo—inside the patient. These features could make genomic medicine more accessible, turning a lengthy hospital process into a single visit to a doctor’s office.

“Our hope with our technology is to be able to do it outpatient,” Soteropoulos said. “It’s an injection that can be done anywhere, it doesn’t require specialized centers.”

Ensoma emerged last week with details about its technology and $70 million in Series A financing. The company also revealed something unusual for a preclinical startup coming out of stealth: a research partnership with a large pharmaceutical company. Takeda Pharmaceutical is collaborating with Ensoma on up to five disease targets.

Soteropoulos, the former CEO of rare-disease drug developer Akcea Therapeutics, said Takeda and others that want to be in gene therapy are looking for in vivo innovations. Ex vivo approaches, in which a patient’s cells are removed and manipulated in a lab before being reintroduced, pose complexities and challenges for companies trying to commercialize them and to healthcare facilities that will provide them, she said.

Gene therapies reach target cells as cargo carried on engineered viruses. But these viruses come with limitations. Adeno-associated virus (AAV), a commonly used vector, can trigger an immune response. AAV also has limited capacity, which makes it hard to deliver a therapy consisting of a larger gene.

An alternative vector, lentivirus, has more capacity but is still limited in its ability to carry a big payload. This approach requires collecting a patient’s stem cells and engineering them outside the body. Before the stem cells are reintroduced, patients must undergo conditioning, comprised of chemotherapy. This step helps the stem cells carrying a therapeutic gene to be taken up by bone marrow, where they will proliferate. But conditioning can lead to side effects such as greater susceptibility to infection and bleeding. Avrobio and bluebird bio are among the biotechs developing lentiviral stem cell gene therapies that require patient  conditioning.

Soteropoulos describes Ensoma’s engineered adenoviruses as “gutless.” On the inside, they’re stripped of viral DNA or RNA that could trigger an immune response. On the outside, the viruses are engineered to specifically target hematopateic stem cells in the bone marrow. They can also target the cells that arise from these stem cells, such as T cells, B cells, and myeloid cells.

There’s another benefit to Ensoma’s gutless viruses. Removing their DNA or RNA creates more room for the genetic payload—more than three times as much as what the viruses used to deliver the current generation of gene therapies can carry. With that extra space, Ensoma’s vectors can carry larger genes as well as gene-editing tools, such as CRISPR or zinc finger nucleases.

“It allows us to do things that other gene therapies cannot,” Soteropoulos said.

Ensoma’s science is based on 20 years of research from the company’s scientific co-founders, Hans-Peter Kiem of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and André Lieber of the University of Washington School of Medicine. In the past five years, that research started forming the foundations of a company. In 2017, the scientists published research showing how their cells were taken up by the bone marrow in a monkey study. Last year, they published study results showing how their approach corrected two genetic disorders, beta thalassemia and sickle cell disease, in mice.

Ensoma was founded about 18 months ago, backed by seed financing from 5AM Ventures, Soteropoulos said. The startup licensed technology from Fred Hutch and UW, then added to the research, building on the intellectual property surrounding it. She said the research reached the point where additional financing was needed to support the next step of selecting which diseases to pursue.

Along the way, the startup drew interest from larger companies that had followed the science of its founders, Soteropoulos said. One of those companies was Takeda. In addition to investing in Ensoma’s Series A financing, the Tokyo-based pharmaceutical giant is also a research partner. The collaboration grants Takeda an exclusive global license to Ensoma’s technology for up to five rare diseases. That alliance could lead to up to $100 million in upfront and preclinical research payments to Ensoma. If all five programs reach the market, Ensoma could receive as much as $1.25 billion in milestone payments plus royalties from sales.

The Ensoma technology offers the potential to go beyond rare diseases. Soteropoulos said that the in vivo approach does away with all the complexity of working with a therapy outside of the body, making these therapies simpler to manufacture and easier to administer. She added that the fact that these therapies won’t require conditioning or stem cell donors helps extend the reach of these genetic medicines to common diseases.

Ensoma is pursuing rare diseases first. The technology is new, so regulators will need time to understand it, Soteropoulos said. Takeda and Ensoma aren’t disclosing the disease targets they have in mind and Soteropoulos said it’s too soon to say when the technology will reach human testing. But she added that because Ensoma’s approach holds promise to address many diseases, there are plenty to choose from. The startup may look for other collaborators in the future but in the near term, the company will focus on developing its own therapies in addition to working with Takeda.

“There are some rare diseases where there is already validation from being able to make these modifications and cure,” Soteropoulos said. “We would be working off of that for our first indications and then see how we can explore other areas.”

5AM led Ensoma’s Series A financing. Besides Takeda, the new round of funding included the participation of F-Prime Capital, Viking Global Investors, Cormorant Asset Management, RIT Capital Partners, Symbiosis II, and Alexandria Venture Investments.

Photo by Ensoma

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Johnson & Johnson has formally asked the FDA to allow emergency use of its Covid-19 vaccine as the company seeks to add a third option to the U.S. lineup of vaccines for the novel coronavirus.

The application comes a week after J&J released preliminary data showing 66% overall efficacy in a Phase 3 clinical trial. Those results fall short of the efficacy marks of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer. But the J&J jab offers advantages compared to those vaccines.

Unlike mRNA vaccines, which are given as two doses weeks apart, J&J’s vaccine is a single shot. Also, the J&J vaccine can be kept at refrigerator temperatures. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines must be kept frozen—Pfizer’s at ultra-cold temperatures. They’re then thawed and temporarily stored at refrigerator temperatures before dosing.

J&J’s vaccine storage requirements are the same as those for most vaccines, making it an easier fit vaccine distribution channels already in place. The company said that if authorized, its vaccine will ship using the same cold chain technologies it uses for transporting other medicines. Of the vaccine candidates that have advanced to late-stage testing, J&J’s is the only one given as a single dose.

Before the FDA decides whether to grant emergency use authorization to the J&J vaccine, the pharma giant’s candidate must be evaluated by an independent advisory committee to the agency that will evaluate the clinical data and discuss the efficacy and safety risks of the shot. The vaccines from both Moderna and Pfizer went through the same step. The J&J meeting is scheduled for Feb. 26.

J&J’s vaccine, developed by the company’s Janssen division, employs a version of the virus that causes the common cold. That virus is modified so it does not cause illness. It’s used to deliver to cells a snippet of the genetic code for the spike protein, which is prominent on the surface of the novel coronavirus. The cells of the body read that genetic material and make copies of the spike protein. The immune system responds to those copies by making antibodies that protect against Covid-19.

AdVac is the same platform Janssen used to develop an Ebola vaccine that was approved by the FDA in 2019. The technology is also the foundation of experimental Zika, RSV, and HIV vaccines. J&J said that the safety profile observed with its Covid-19 vaccine was consistent with other experimental vaccines based on AdVac.

J&J evaluated its Covid-19 vaccine in a Phase 3 study enrolling 43,783 patients. The main goal was to show protection from moderate to severe disease. There were geographic differences in efficacy rates. The vaccine candidate was most protective in the U.S., where efficacy was 72%, the company said. In Latin America, efficacy was 66%; in South Africa, it was 57% effective. While those marks fell short of the efficacy rates demonstrated by the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, cross trial comparisons are tricky. Also, the J&J studies were done when more variants of the novel coronavirus were circulating compared to when the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were tested.

Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer, said in a prepared statement that the company has vaccines ready to ship immediately upon receiving emergency authorization.

“With our submission to the FDA and our ongoing reviews with other health authorities around the world, we are working with great urgency to make our investigational vaccine available to the public as quickly as possible,” he said.

In addition to the submission to the FDA, J&J is seeking similar authorizations from health agencies in other countries. The company said an application to the European Medicines Agency will be submitted in coming weeks.

Photo: Teka77, Getty Images

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Voyager Therapeutics is losing Neurocrine Biosciences as a research partner on an experimental Parkinson’s disease treatment, the latest in a string of setbacks for the biotech’s efforts to develop gene therapies addressing neurological disorders.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Voyager disclosed late Tuesday that Neurocrine provided a termination notice on the Parkinson’s candidate NBlb-1817, which is currently in mid-stage clinical testing. The decision follows the FDA’s December decision to place a clinical hold on that program due to safety concerns.

Termination of the partnership on the Parkinson’s gene therapy will be effective Aug. 2. The collaboration agreement requires Neurocrine to provide 180 days written notice of a termination. The San Diego biotech acknowledged providing that notice in its own regulatory filing. Three other programs covered by the agreement, one for Friedreich’s ataxia and two others in the discovery stage, are not affected by Tuesday’s decision and will continue, Voyager said.

The alliance began in 2019 when San Diego-based Neurocrine pledged $165 million in cash and stock to Voyager. Of the four programs covered by the pact, the Parkinson’s candidate was the most advanced. According to the deal terms, Neurocrine was responsible for funding Phase 2 clinical development. After the study produced data, Voyager held the option to split the rights to the gene therapy with Neurocrine, sharing in further development costs. Alternatively, Voyager could grant its partner full global rights in exchange for milestone payments pegged to sales.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Neurocrine anticipated advancing the Parkinson’s gene therapy to a pivotal study in the second half of 2020, the company said in its annual report. The pandemic and the clinical hold stalled that timeline.

Voyager uses engineered viruses to deliver gene therapies to the brain. Parkinson’s is characterized by a lack of dopamine, a brain chemical that’s key to controlling muscle movement. Standard treatment includes prescriptions of levodopa, which is converted by a brain enzyme into dopamine.

As Parkinson’s progresses, a patient has less of that key enzyme in parts of the brain where it is needed to convert levodopa to dopamine, Voyager states in its filings. The Parkinson’s candidate is designed to deliver a gene directly into the neurons where dopamine receptors are located, providing the instructions the brain needs to make the key enzyme.

The Parkinson’s gene therapy is administered via a direct injection into the brain. For its amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Friedreich’s ataxia programs, the company is exploring other approaches, including spinal or intravenous injections.

In its announcement of the end of the partnership in Parkinson’s, Voyager said Neurocine based its decision on a review of its portfolio and the prioritization of other programs in its pipeline. No mention was made about the safety of the Parkinson’s gene therapy. When Voyager disclosed the clinical hold in December, it said that a Neurocrine safety report noted MRI abnormalities in some study participants. It also said the independent board responsible for monitoring the safety of study participants requested a pause on dosing of patients until it could review additional data.

Until the alliance on NBIb-1817 is officially terminated in August, Neurocrine is the company of record for the clinical program. Voyager said that last month, the FDA informed Neurocrine of the information needed to respond to the clinical hold. In addition to an assessment of how the therapy may have contributed to the adverse findings, Voyager said the agency wants a mitigation plan to manage them along with supportive data to justify that the benefit of the therapy outweighs its risks.

Voyager said it will support Neurocrine on any imaging or clinical assessments requested by data safety monitors of the study, as well as any information sought by the FDA. The company added that it is evaluating the financial effect the termination will have on the company and the future of the Parkinson’s program.

The end of the partnership on the Parkinson’s gene therapy marks the second time a company has passed up the opportunity to advance that program. Sanofi was Voyager’s first partner on the experimental therapy, committing $100 million up front in 2015 for rights to several gene therapies for brain disorders. At the time of the deal, the Parkinson’s gene therapy was in early-stage testing. In 2017, Sanofi returned the therapy to Voyager after the biotech declined to amend the original deal to grant the pharma giant a share of the U.S. rights to the program.

The loss of Neurocrine as a partner in Parkinson’s comes a little more than six months after an alliance with AbbVie ended. That partnership focused on developing gene therapies for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. AbbVie terminated the alliance before either program reached Phase 1 testing, at which point Voyager would have become eligible for additional payments from the North Chicago, Illinois-based pharma company.

Photo: SIphotography, Getty Images

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For decades, scientists have known that viruses can kill cancer cells. The challenge has been harnessing that power safely and effectively.

Buoyed by advances in immunotherapy and drug discovery, a new wave of researchers and companies is poised to make a run at that challenge over the next few years with a class of therapies known as oncolytic viruses.

“We’re just on the brink of some really exciting developments in our field,” said Charlotte Casebourne, CEO of Theolytics. Based in Oxford, England, the company hopes to move its lead oncolytic virus candidate into clinical trials over the next two to three years.

The field is based on a relatively simple premise. A virus is injected into tumor cells; the virus replicates and blows up – or lyses – the tumor cells; the immune system recognizes the remaining tumor cells and clears them out.

The premise was discovered decades ago in patients who came down with viruses alongside cancer. The viruses attacked the cancer but they also could harm patients.

Early research focused on attenuated viruses, which generally proved too weak to do much. Recent advances are solving that challenge while addressing new ones, such as preventing the immune system from turning on the virus.

“Right now, it’s about finding that Goldilocks, that perfect happy medium,” said Greg Delgoffe, a cancer immunologist and associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

The field got a shot in the arm in 2015 when Amgen won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an oncolytic virus therapy called T-VEC. Based on a genetically modified herpes simplex virus and marketed as Imlygic, it is used to treat melanomas that cannot be surgically removed.

“We have this example which provides us with really nice clinical proof of concept that efficacy is possible with oncolytic viruses as a technical approach,” Casebourne said in a Zoom interview.

T-VEC, however, is injected directly into a tumor. Some of the newer therapies are designed to be injected intravenously, allowing them to move through the body to clear cancer.

Theolytics’ lead candidate is TheoAd281, an adenovirus-based therapy that targets ovarian cancer. Clinical trials will focus on its safety and efficacy as a monotherapy, delivered intravenously, before delving into its potential in combination with other therapies, Casebourne said.

The company was founded in 2017 by Casebourne and researchers Margaret Duffy, Kerry Fisher and Len Seymour. It raised $6.8 million in a Series A round in early 2021 led by Epidarex Capital and Taiho Ventures, with participation from existing investor Oxford Sciences Innovation.

In addition to Amgen’s approved therapy, the field has benefited from advances in drug discovery and gene sequencing, Casebourne noted. Theolytics uses a proprietary phenotypic platform to figure out which virus variants might be effective against particular tumors, Casebourne said. The platform speeds up the discovery process to between 12 and 18 months, she added.

Valo Therapeutics also is banking on a platform approach. Its platform incorporates peptides to create oncolytic viruses that do not linger in the body after they turn the immune system against tumor cells. Its lead candidate, PeptiCRAd 1, is expected to enter phase 1 trials this year, most likely for treating melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer, according to Paul Higham, CEO of Valo, which is based in Oxford, England.

The use of peptides is based on research by Vincenzo Cerullo, a professor and head of the drug research program at Helsinki University in Finland.

“Because it’s actually a simple process to attach peptides on the surface of the oncolytic virus, we can be extremely flexible in terms of what we attach to the viruses,” Higham said. “We can select all different kinds of peptides to stimulate all different kinds of immune responses.”

Different tumors may require different peptides, he said. “The most effective therapies in the future are going to be those that are most specific to the patient being treated, and our platform really allows to do that.”

Another contender in the space is CG Oncology, based in Irvine, California. In December, the company raised $47 million in a Series D round led by Kissei Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. CG’s main oncolytic virus candidate, CG0070, is being examined in several clinical trials.

A phase 3 trial is testing the candidate as monotherapy for a form of bladder cancer. A phase 2 trial is studying CG0070 for the same indication but in combination with Merck’s Keytruda, a checkpoint inhibitor. The candidate is injected directly into the tumor.

Checkpoint inhibitors release the brakes on the immune system while the oncolytic virus strengthens the immune response, said Arthur Kuan, CG’s CEO. “I think oncolytic viruses will continue to emerge as one of the best combination partners with checkpoint inhibitors.”

The company is planning to move into other cancers this year, Kuan said in a phone interview. He and others expect that future oncologists will have a range of viruses to choose from based on a range of factors, including the type and location of the cancer.

It may be years before therapies win approval, Kuan said. But he believes the oncolytic virus field is coming into its own.

“We’re definitely in a rising-tide environment with many catalysts coming up in the next 12 to 18 months,” he said.

The field’s challenges over the years have made investors somewhat leery, said Dr. Mark McCamish, CEO of San Diego-based IconOVir Bio.

For its part, IconOVir was able to overcome investor skepticism by explaining how the field has overcome some of its earlier challenges, McCamish said. Those challenges have included creating an oncolytic virus that could escape detection by the immune system and confer lasting immunity against a tumor. IconOVir Bio raised $77 million earlier this year in Series A funding to advance its platform for creating oncolytic virus therapies. The platform is based on more than a decade of research by company co-founder Clodagh O’Shea of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences.

“It’s data-driven. It’s not just a story,” said McCamish, who previously led immune-oncology company Forty Seven before it was bought last year by Gilead Sciences.

IconOVir is hoping to start clinical trials of its lead candidate, IOV-1042, in the first half of 2022. Derived from the common cold virus, IOV-1042 has been shown in preclinical research to infect and kill a range of tumor cells, including head and neck, bladder, lung and breast.

“I think it’s an exciting field and an exciting time,” said McCamish. “And if the science comes to fruition, it’s a great opportunity.”

Photo: Main_sail, Getty Images

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When he worked part-time one summer in a Brooklyn pharmacy, Rahul Kavuru made occasional sweeps of the store’s inventory to find nearly expired drugs and dispose of them.

The high school student suspected the drugs could have been put to better use. Conversations with his peers reinforced the notion and eventually prompted action on what is, in fact, a costly problem for pharmaceutical companies.

In early 2020, Kavuru, his sister and a friend started a nonprofit, Altrui Rx, and built a technology platform to match drug companies with nonprofits that help patients in need.

“The biggest problem is that it costs money to destroy the medication and it costs money to hold the product,” said Kavuru, a junior at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. His co-founders are his sister, Shreya Kavuru, a senior at St. Paul’s, and Sourish Jasti, a freshman at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Their research into the problem led them to conclude that roughly $5 billion worth of medication is destroyed each year at a cost of between $1 and $3 per pound, Rahul Kavuru said in a phone interview.

Drug companies often collaborate with charities to distribute medications they might otherwise destroy. But it is hard for manufacturers to work with more than a handful of charities, said Jasti, who plans to pursue studies in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Altrui’s platform makes it easier to find charities and learn what they need, Jasti said. Drug companies sign in, upload inventory that is near expiration and then pick from a list of organizations where they can send it. The charities are all vetted by Altrui.

Drug companies can then download packing slips and tracking numbers to send their products to the selected charities.

“We are an intermediary in the process,” Kavuru said. “The goal is to bring out more impact and create an accessible portal for these medications.”

Within a few months after its founding, Altrui had redirected nearly $12.3 million worth of medication. Its pharmacy partners include Aurobindo Pharma, Ingenus Pharmaceuticals and Rising Pharmaceuticals, where Altrui’s founders had an inside connection through a neighbor in their hometown of Holmdel, New Jersey. Rahul and Shreya now live in Rumson, New Jersey.

The founders initially spent their own money to build and host their website. But they have gotten subsequent funding from Aurobindo, the New Jersey Health Foundation and the BEN Health Innovation Summit, which is sponsored by Rutgers University. BEN stands for Biomedical Entrepreneurship Network.

They also have started a companion nonprofit, Altrui Education. It provides college counseling services to disadvantaged students. The two charities are staffed by a team of 15 volunteers.

In addition to their work at Altrui, Jasti and Rahul Kavuru run a blog called CompanyRoots, which interviews business experts and entrepreneurs about their experiences.

Altrui’s founders have impressed Paul Moore II, president and CEO of CitiHope Relief and Development in Margaretville, New York.

Over the past three decades, CitiHope has delivered more than $1.5 billion worth of donated medication to people and organizations around the world. The nonprofit has existing relationships with drug companies, but decided to give Altrui a try, Moore said in a phone interview.

This led CitiHope to get connected to new donors using Altrui’s platform. Moore, whose own philanthropic career began when he was a teenager, was heartened to find that the founders of the nascent startup have worked hard to learn more about this charitable niche.  

“Every interaction I’ve had with them has been, ‘Can we do this better? How have you managed this in the past?’” Moore said.

Photo: cagkansayin, Getty Images

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