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Morning brief: New biotech launched, Merck and Moderna expand collaboration and more

A rapid round up of pharma, biotech and healthcare news

MerckMerck and Moderna expand cancer vaccines work

Cancer vaccines have long been the ‘next big thing’ in oncology, but the news flow this year shows real momentum growing in the field. Today brings the latest confirmation of that, with Merck & Co expanding its existing collaboration with Moderna Therapeutics to develop and commercialise novel personalised messenger RNA (mRNA) cancer vaccines.

The two companies have now added to their collaboration shared antigen mRNA cancer vaccines including mRNA-5671, Moderna’s mRNA KRAS cancer vaccine.

The two companies will now jointly develop Moderna’s mRNA-5671 in human studies, and plan combination studies with further immuno-oncology therapies.

Merck and its biggest immunotherapy rival BMS already have more than a dozen trials looking at combinations of vaccines and other immunotherapies, including their respective PD-1 therapies Keytruda and Opdivo.

Cancer vaccines now look even more important after the failure of a previously much-anticipated combination, Inctye’s IDO1 inhibitor epacadostat and Keytruda.

Autophagy-focused Casma Therapeutics launched with $58.5m fund

Casma Therapeutics, a new biotech company focused on unlocking the process of autophagy to tackle a wide range of diseases has been launched in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The start-up has the backing of venture capital firm Third Rock Ventures, which is fuelling its launch with a $58.5 million in Series A funding.

Autophagy is the natural process by which cells break down surplus or dysfunctional protein; organelles such as mitochondria; and viruses and other pathogens.

When autophagy fails, dysfunctional material builds up and fuels a cascade of problems, from protein aggregation to lipid accumulation, leading to disease.

The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded for the discovery of the key mechanisms of autophagy, and the field has attracted increasing levels of research investment in recent years.

Among Casma’s founders are leading experts in the field, including Beth Levine, the firm’s scientific co-founder who discovered the first known mammalian autophagy gene, and Leon Murphy, Casma’s senior vice president, biology who most recently at Novartis in Cambridge, Mass.

It is developing ways to assist the process in patients with autophagy-based conditions, with the aim of clearing out unwanted proteins, organelles and pathogens. Preclinical data suggest this could lead to treatments for diseases including lysosomal storage disorders, liver and muscle diseases, inflammatory disorders and neurodegeneration.

“This is an exciting time to launch Casma, as new discoveries have shed light on just how vital the process of autophagy is to maintain cellular health and prevent disease,” said Keith Dionne, Casma’s chief executive officer, a serial entrepreneur and veteran of the biotech sector.

“Understanding autophagy has opened up a vast new set of targets for drug discovery and development,” said Beth Levine, “We see a tremendous opportunity to make a difference for patients who have few other options.”

Abcam launches takeover for gene-editing specialists Horizon Discovery

Abcam, a UK-based biotech research services firm launched a takeover bid for its neighbour and rival Horizon Discovery this week, but has seen its £270m ($368m) offer rejected.

Horizon Discovery released a statement on Wednesday rejecting the unsolicited takeover bid, which represented a premium of 26% to its value. Horizon called the bid “highly opportunistic” and said it fundamentally undervalued the company and its future prospects.

After a meeting with Abcam, Horizon’s board says it sees little strategic rationale for combining the two companies, and rejected the bid.

Abcam, led by CEO Alan Thomas Hirzel, say it is “executing its vision to be the most influential life science company for researchers worldwide”, and particularly covets Horizon’s ‘extensive capabilities’ in the gene editing market.

Abcam says a merger would help create a company with greater global reach and create significant value for researchers through the development of new products and services.

AINew start-up brings AI and quantum physics to drug discovery

A new drug discovery start-up called GTN has raised £2.1 million ($3 million) of seed funding, looking to accelerate progress with the help of AI and quantum physics.

Professor Noor Shaker, Co-Founder and CEO of GTN says ‘interdisciplinary innovation’ is the way forward.

“GTN uniquely combines multiple scientific disciplines, including quantum physics, biochemistry and deep learning to revolutionise medicine discovery,” said Professor Noor Shaker, Co-Founder and CEO of GTN.

The London-based company says its Generative Tensorial Networks technology already outperforms state of the art machine learning models in predicting molecular properties such as binding energy and toxicity.

The software combines and builds on techniques from machine learning and quantum physics to simulate, filter and search for molecules, discovering molecules entirely hidden from view.

The firm is already working with global pharma companies and has partnerships with world-leading research bodies including the Francis Crick Institute in London.

It says the technology is needed, as R&D productivity is otherwise expected to maintain its decline, with an expected 50% drop in R&D output every nine years.

It joins a growing field of companies bringing AI and computational methods to accelerate R&D, including other UK-based companies such as BenevolentAI and Exscientia.

Article by
Andrew McConaghie

4th May 2018

From: Research, Sales, Regulatory

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