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The Readout Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

This Thursday, STAT’s Adam Feuerstein and Matthew Herper are hosting at subscriber-only video chat on how the biotech industry is navigating these calamitous times. If you’re a subscriber, check your inbox for details. If you’re interested in signing up, click here for a special offer.

So where are we on that coronavirus drug?

Soaring biopharma stocks, breathless press releases, and all-caps presidential tweets all portend a treatment for the novel coronavirus causing a global pandemic. Just when such a thing might come to pass, however, is a complicated matter.

As STAT’s Matthew Herper writes, the world of medicine finds itself between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Covid-19. Readily available treatments, including the President Trump-endorsed hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, have scant evidence to support them and real side effects to consider. On the other hand, the ideal medicine — a vaccine that would protect people from contracting the virus in the first place — is likely 18 months or more from practical use, if it comes about at all.

In the middle are retrofitted antivirals, repurposed antibodies, and novel applications of proven technologies, each with merits of its own but no guarantee of success.

Read more.

From CAR-T to CAR-M

The biggest stumbling block for CAR-T cancer therapy is that its benefits, while revolutionary in blood cancer, have yet to extend to solid tumors. The startup Carisma Therapeutics believes it has found a workaround, changing one letter in that acronym by focusing on a different time of immune cell.

As STAT’s Kate Sheridan reports, while CAR-T treatments genetically engineer T cells, Carisma is applying a similar technology to macrophages, the clean-up crews of the body. As Carisma co-founder Michael Klichinsky explained, the company isolated the most aggressive species of macrophages and outfitted cells with molecular homing devices matched to certain solid tumors. In a mouse study, published this week in Nature Biotechnology, the so-called CAR-M therapy had a significant effect on survival.

It’ll be years before anyone can be sure Klichinsky’s method works where CAR-T falters, but Carisma has a plan to get there. The company is on track to start its first clinical trial later this year and has enough money in the bank to see the process through into 2021.

Read more.

The pandemic’s effects on biotech are just beginning

The novel coronavirus’s disruptive effect on biotech has turned 2020 into an unpredictable environment for scores of make-or-break clinical trials.

As STAT’s Adam Feuerstein reports, there are more than 120 Phase 3 studies slated to read out by the end of the year. But each day seems to bring news of drug companies pausing enrollment out of coronavirus caution. Yesterday, it was Eli Lilly. On Sunday, it was Galapagos. Today could bring another.

That creates a difficult situation for patients involved in studies, but also  the many others waiting on new treatments. It also injects uncertainty into the whole biopharma industry at a time when investors are already skittish about plummeting indices and the risk of a prolonged financial downturn.

Read more.

Biotech’s latest David and Goliath story intensifies

About a dozen years ago, Bellus Health was teetering on the brink of insolvency after a would-be treatment for Alzheimer’s disease turned out to be no better than placebo. Today, it is a rehabilitated enterprise with plans to contend with Merck, and it just took full control of its own destiny.

Yesterday, Bellus signed a deal to buy out its partners and acquire the full rights to BLU-5937, an in-development treatment for chronic cough. Much like a Merck drug called gefapixant, BLU-5937 targets a sensory receptor called P2X3, which plays a role in triggering coughing. But Bellus believes its drug is more precise, meaning it might avoid the nagging loss of taste sensation sometimes observed with Merck’s treatment.

But that remains to be seen. Bellus is running a mid-stage trial expected to conclude in the middle of this year. If the drug looks favorable to gefapixant, Bellus will be that much closer to one of biotech’s more improbable turnarounds. If not, this could be the Alzheimer’s situation all over again. Either way, the company now owns 100% of its lottery ticket.

More reads

  • Experimental drug out of Emory University to be tried against coronavirus. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Antibiotic resistance: the hidden threat lurking behind Covid-19. (STAT)
  • Leukemia drug from Roche, AbbVie extends survival, study finds. (BioPharma Dive)
  • AbbVie waives all worldwide restrictions on making generic copies of its Kaletra HIV pill. (STAT Plus)

Thanks for reading! Until tomorrow,

Tuesday, March 24, 2020


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