Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Readout by Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Welcome to The Readout, your daily guide to what people are talking about in biotech. Today we look at a company that went out of business and another that's doing so right now. Need more? Follow @statnews.

Topical Botox is no more

As a rule, people tend not to like having their skin punctured. Despite that, the injectable Botox brought in roughly $2 billion for its maker last year. Imagine how valuable it would be if it came in a cream.

Such was the dream of Revance, a California biotech developing a topical treatment based on the same neurotoxin that makes Botox Botox. The problem is that Revance’s drug doesn’t work — like, at all, apparently.

In an evening press release yesterday, Revance said the topical wrinkle-fighter missed its main “and other” goals in a late-stage trial on patients with crow's feet. The company didn’t provide specific data but said it was bad enough to warrant abandoning the program altogether. So bad, in fact, that Revance is preemptively canceling plans to study the gel as a treatment for a second condition — excessive sweating.

This is bad for Revance because clinical failures always are, and it also deflates a semi-popular theory that Allergan, the inventor of Botox, might want to buy the company. But anyone who does want to acquire Revance is in luck: It just got 27 percent cheaper.

The people behind Dendreon are doing just fine

The surprising rise and rapid collapse of Dendreon, an early adopter of cancer immunotherapy, has made the company something of a cautionary tale in biotech. But the firm’s misfortune (and arguable mismanagement) hasn’t held back its alumni network.

First, the Dendreon story, in brief: We think we can use patients’ own cells to treat cancer. It worked in Phase III! The FDA approved it! Wait, how do we market it? Oh no, we’re going bankrupt. Hang on, Valeant is buying us. Oh no Valeant is Valeant.

Anyway, Mitch Gold, Dendreon’s former CEO, just raised $48 million for his latest venture, called Alpine Immune Sciences. The Seattle company has some early-stage technology it says can work like a dimmer switch for the immune system: dial it up to fight tumors, scale it back to treat autoimmune disease.

His former Dendreon deputy, Hans Bishop, similarly landed on his feet, joining Juno Therapeutics in 2013 and steering the company to a successful IPO. Juno is now a leader in using re-engineered T cells to fight blood cancers — a technology similar to Dendreon’s anchor product.

What lessons have they drawn from Dendreon's fall? Bishop has said his new company worked to get unsexy things like manufacturing in place at an early stage, hoping to avoid the production surprises that tanked Dendreon. As for Gold, he told STAT yesterday that Dendreon laid the groundwork for next-generation immunotherapies.

Dendreon’s former investors, some of whom sued Gold and Bishop, learned an entirely different lesson.

Meet biotech’s new poster millennial

SQZ Biotech CEO Armon Sharei is yet to appear on the cover of Forbes or buy a one-of-a-kind rap album, but there's time. (SQZ Biotech)
Elizabeth Holmes and Martin Shkreli have fallen on times of varying hardness. Vivek Ramaswamy, once the toast of Wall Street, has drifted earthward in the eyes of the industry. Biotech clamors for a new millennial to laud, and Inc. Magazine obliges.

Armon Sharei is the 29-year-old CEO of a company called SQZ Biotech, which grew out of Dr. Robert Langer’s famed lab at MIT. SQZ has figured out how to get molecules through cellular membranes through a process that amounts to squeezing cells until they get porous — hence the name. This brings the promise of improved engineering for cell therapies, and Roche, the Swiss mega-pharma, has wagered up to $500 million on the idea.

But can Sharei live up to the biotech millennial pedigree? At his age, Holmes was promising to revolutionize blood testing; Shkreli was declaring himself “a tornado;” and Ramaswamy was “mapping the drugome.” And Sharei?

"For somebody as smart as he is, he's really humble and he's eager to learn," SQZ Chairwoman Amy Schulman told Inc.

That won’t do.

Eleven Bio’s fire sale lands a big customer

Eleven Biotherapeutics, quite likely the only drug company ever named for a scene in “This Is Spinal Tap,” has been in the everything-must-go process since its top prospect, a drug for dry eye disease, failed last year. Now, thanks to Roche, it has found a home for its runner-up drug, and pocketed a few million dollars in the process.

Roche has agreed to pay Eleven Bio $7.5 million for the global rights to a drug called EBI-031, which is designed to treat eye diseases by blocking a bodily protein related to inflammation. Eleven is due about $20 million more if the drug enters its first clinical trial on time, and then as much as $240 million over the next few years if everything works out.

It seems unlikely, though, that Eleven Bio as we know it will still exist to collect. Since the company’s big late-stage failure — which reduced its value by about 80 percent — Eleven Bio has been gradually selling off its component parts. It shipped out some development technology in January, using the proceeds to pay off a loan.

All that’s left in the pipeline now are some early-stage projects focused on eye disorders, and Eleven Bio notes that it will “continue to evaluate additional strategic alternatives with a goal to maximize shareholder value.” Which is to say the "for sale" sign remains intact.

‘I want you to really play up the smugness right now’

Martin Shkreli, long a star of the smallest screens, will soon be immortalized on stage. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

That’s a note from one of the producers of the Martin Shkreli musical, delivered to one of 14 auditioners hoping to land the titular role. The play is called “Martin Shkreli's Game: How Bill Murray Joined the Wu-Tang Clan,” and it’s happening in real life.

Reuters went to this weekend’s auditions and came back with a few tidbits of Stella Adler-esque advice for would-be Shkrelis.

"I want you to pretend you know more than anyone else in this room, no matter what you are talking about,” a judge told auditioners. “Like, if you're talking to an astrophysicist, you still know more about astrophysics."

What does the real Shkreli make of all this?


More reads

  • It's your last chance to suggest a name for the apparently in-development Theranos movie. Come Wednesday, we'll gather up the best of the best and vote on a winner.
  • Hemophilia could be gene therapy's first big success, as early results suggest a potential cure. (MIT Technology Review)
  • The cost of new cancer therapies keeps escalating, with the worldwide bill expected to reach $178 billion by 2020. (Bloomberg)
  • French prosecutors open criminal investigation into botched drug trial that left one dead and five hospitalized. (Reuters)
  • Andrew Left, the investor who famously shorted Valeant Pharmaceuticals (and Enron), has turned his attention to Facebook, which he said "is losing an extensive amount of relevancy." (CNBC)

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Thanks for reading! Until tomorrow,

Damian & Meghana

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