Wellington Life Sciences general partner Regina Hodits, during a talk with CBT Advisors CEO Steve Dickman at the recent Biopharm America meeting, said the disaster scenario feared for European investments when COVID-19 struck “turned out very different. We never have a lot of time off in summer, not as much as we would want to, but this year we certainly had no time off,” as portfolio firms found money and Wellington tapped new opportunities.
“By the beginning of July, it was pretty clear that we we’d seen a wealth of business opportunities,” Hodits said. “We’ve got five term sheets out.” Among the deals made: Themis Bioscience GmbH, of Vienna, was acquired by Kenilworth, N.J.-based Merck & Co. Inc. in June. On the front burner is acceleration of work on a measles vector-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Themis developed a broad pipeline of them, as well as immune-modulatory therapies using its platform based on a vector originally developed by scientists at the Institut Pasteur. In March, Themis joined a consortium with the institute and The Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh, supported by funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, to come up with the COVID-19 vaccine.
But the pandemic assuredly has made itself felt, Hodits said. Her remarks contrasted with those by some others who have sung the praises of virtual Zoom meetings vs. time-honored, face-to-face meetings in starting new relationships and signing new contracts. “We’re only investing with people we’ve met before,” she said. “I honestly think that personal interactions are going to be very important. We had one situation where we were hiring a new managing director for one of our portfolio companies, and we got really close to thinking we had the right person, until one of our board members who was on the right side of the Atlantic had an in-person meeting. Both sides realized, actually, it’s not the right story” and the prospect was dropped.
“What we’ve all done is go back to our Rolodexes and say, ‘Hey, I haven’t looked at these guys for a while,’” Hodits said. “It was not only us, it was the pharma guys, it was the public investors” who stepped up, and the public seemed to notice. “What I like is that we finally, as an industry, are not seen as the people that tried to make a quick buck off some people being not healthy, not well, but people who are trying to help,” she said – a mood that she hopes will last beyond the COVID-19 nightmare.
‘Mindset deficit’ in Germany?
The situation with regard to clinical trials was not as bad as feared, either. “Initially, we were saying it’s going to take at least a year before we come out the other side” and can resume experiments, Hodits said. “But guess what? This is not an option for a cancer patient.” Another portfolio firm, Imcheck Therapeutics SAS, of Marseille, France, was able to start a study. The company said Sept. 10 that the independent safety review committee for the phase I/II effort called Eviction with lead antibody ICT-01 unanimously approved dose escalation in the solid tumor indications and the start of enrollment in the two other arms of the study: treatment for patients with hematologic malignancies as a monotherapy and in solid tumor patients in combination with Keytruda (pembrolizumab, Merck & Co. Inc.). ICT-01 is the first of a series of Imcheck agents targeting the butyrophilin superfamily of immunomodulators. “The [trial] center,” she recalled, “basically said, ‘We have to treat patients. We can’t send our oncology patients home. So if we treat them, we might as well treat them the best way that we can.’”
Another of Wellington’s firms, Adrenomed AG, of Hennigsdorf, Germany, kicked off a sepsis trial. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t go away, either,” Hodits said. On Sept. 16, Adrenomed offered data from its proof-of-concept AdrenOSS-2 phase II bid at the International Symposium on Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine. AdrenOSS-2 evaluated the safety, tolerability and efficacy of adrecizumab (HAM-8101), a potentially first-in-class antibody targeting the vasoprotective peptide adrenomedullin designed to restore and maintain vascular integrity in patients with septic shock.
The pandemic means that “going forward, we just have to live with less travel, all of us,” Hodits said. Less travel doesn’t mean zero travel, though. Portfolio company Gtx Medical BV, of Eindhoven, the Netherlands, recently hired a U.S.-based CEO, Dave Marver, who is living in Europe for now but will be returning eventually. Dickman nodded to Gtx’s “amazing technology for getting people out of wheelchairs and walking again.” In June, the FDA granted Gtx breakthrough device designation for its implantable Go-2 Targeted Epidural Spinal Stimulation system. The device enables patients who had sustained traumatic spinal cord injuries to regain voluntary control over previously paralyzed muscles and walk again four or more years after paralysis, according to a study published in Nature.
Regarding biotech in Germany, Dickman cited a persistent “mindset deficit,” and recalled witnessing street protests in the 1980s against genetically engineered human insulin produced outside of Frankfurt. Hodits said the setup hasn’t changed much. For Germans, “if all diseases were to be treated by some natural ointments, this would probably be their preferred way.” Suspicion toward the measles vaccine has led to outbreaks, she said, yet “they are very happy to be infected by a virus,” which “does genetic engineering to every cell that it’s infecting. I would take the vaccine anytime.”