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heart, doctor, cardiac

Gene therapy developer Rocket Pharmaceuticals is on track to seek FDA approval for its lead program but it’s also taking care to keep its pipeline stocked. The company has agreed to acquisition of Renovacor, a biotech developing a gene therapy for a genetically driven form of heart failure.

According to financial terms announced Tuesday, the all-stock deal represents an equity value of $53 million, or an implied value of $2.60 for each Renovacor share. That’s a 36.8% premium over the closing price of Renovacor’s closing stock price on Monday but a steep drop from a year ago, when the company went public via a SPAC merger and saw its shares new shares trade on the New York Stock Exchange for more than $10 apiece.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Renovacor develops gene therapies for genetically driven cardiovascular diseases. The company emerged in 2019 with an $11 million Series A round of financing for preclinical development of a gene therapy that addresses BLCL2-associated athanogene 3 (BAG3) mutations that lead to dilated cardiomyopathy, a severe form of heart failure. Renovacor was founded by Arthur Feldman, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Temple University.

Lead Renovacor program REN-001 uses an adeno-associated virus (AAV) to deliver to cells a healthy version of the BAG3 gene. In preclinical testing, Renovacor said its gene therapy led to the production of functional BAG3 protein and improvement in cardiac function. Human testing is the next step. The company has said it expects to submit an investigational new drug application in the second half of this year to support a Phase 1/2 clinical trial. The Renovacor pipeline includes discovery-stage gene therapies addressing BAG3 mutations as well as the expression and function of that gene. The company has also expanded its research to include genetically driven arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy.

“The acquisition of Renovacor aligns with our strategy to expand our leadership position in AAV-based gene therapy for cardiac disease and gives us a perfect opportunity to continue on our mission to transform the lives of heart failure patients through the power of gene therapy,” Rocket CEO Gaurav Shah said in a prepared statement.

Rocket’s cardiac gene therapy research focuses on Danon disease, a weakening of the heart muscle caused by mutations to the LAMP2 gene. The Cranbury, New Jersey-based company’s Danon program, RP-A501, is currently in Phase 1 testing. In a research note sent to investors, William Blair analyst Raju Prasad said the prevalence of BAG3-associated dilated cardiomyopathy is estimated to be as high as 30,000 patients in the U.S., a figure that is expected to grow with more genetic testing and disease awareness. He added that Renovacor brings synergies to Rocket, as both companies are using AAV-9 vectors to pursue genetically defined targets.

Rocket’s most advanced program, RP-L201, has reached pivotal Phase 2 testing for leukocyte adhesion deficiency-1 (LAD-1), a rare disorder caused by mutations to the gene that encodes CD18, a protein that helps white blood cells stick to blood vessels. Children born with LAD-1 are susceptible to fungal and bacterial infections that can become life-threatening. In May, Rocket reported data showing 100% survival in seven patients 12 months after infusion with the gene therapy. In its report of second quarter 2022 financial results last month, Rocket said it expects to file an application seeking FDA approval of its LAD-1 gene therapy in the first half of 2023.

The boards of directors of both Rocket and Renovacor have approved the acquisition, but approval by shareholders of both companies is still needed. The deal is expected to close by the first quarter of next year.

Photo: BrianAJackson, Getty Images

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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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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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