Chutes and Ladders: 38th Annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference

Attracting upwards of 20,000+ people in biotech, health care, venture capital and investment banking, the 38th annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, in San Francisco, took place on January 13-16th, 2020, to pitch their companies, forge deals and discuss the future of the $3.5 trillion health sector. 

I wanted to highlight a few companies in the Biotech Showcase pitch sessions which I found particularly interesting. 

The first one is Anixa Biosciences, a CAR-T company, from San Jose, and led by a former venture capitalist, Dr. Amit Kumar.  Anixa Biosciences has raised a total of $11.8M in funding over 6 rounds.  Anixa Bio is bringing in a new program with the Cleveland Clinic, and that is a vaccine for triple negative and other types of breast cancer. It is funded by a $6 MM dollar Department of Defense (DOD) grant that will fund all the remaining pre-clinical work and two phase 1 trials.  It is an academic/investigator-initiated trial.  The IND is pending, and the company plans to file mid-year 2020.  For this specific trial, Cleveland Clinic researchers have identified a protein called alpha-lactalbumin that is present in healthy breast tissue only when a woman is lactating and disappears when she stops nursing her child.  Alpha-lactalbumin is never present on any other cell in the body.  However, it does show up in many types of breast cancer, including an aggressive and deadly form of the disease known as Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC). 

The second one is AgeX Therapeutics from Alameda, CA, which focuses on reversing the natural cellular aging processes.  As a subsidiary of BioTime, AgeX has successfully completed a $10 MM raise.  In preclinical research, their proprietary platform is called induced Tissue Regeneration (iTR™), which leverages assets in pluripotency and bioinformatics, performing research in cellular immortality and regenerative biology comparing cells in the first stages of life with those in old age. 

The premise behind iTR™ is that aging, and in turn diseases of old age, are due to two characteristics that are present in the cells in our body when it is first forming but that are lost with time. These two characteristics are:

  • Replicative immortality of cells
  • Regenerative capacity of cells

Another interesting company I met with is Navenga Therapeutics, initially out of a UCSD, and currently based in J Labs San Diego.  Navenga Tx have isolated a mutation in a human’s genome where they feel no pain whatsoever.  They have imitated this process by using a new gene therapy to target chronic pain, and more importantly, to tackle the opioid epidemic.   Navenga’s team is led by a vibrant team of scientists, including CEO Dr. Ana Moreno, and Co-founder and CSO, Dr. Fernando Aleman. 

Lastly, Acepodia out of Burlingame, CA, is a company which has raised over $33 MM in Silicon Valley to fight Antibody Cell Conjugation (ACC).  With a PhD in Chemistry, from Berkeley, at the helm named Sonny Hsiao, and some pioneering CAR-T leaders in the field on their management team, such as Pat Yang (formerly of Juno Tx), Acepodia is an emerging biotechnology company developing cancer immunotherapy based on its novel ACC™ technology platform, having recently received clearance of its Investigational New Drug (IND) application from the FDA to initiate a Phase 1 clinical study of its natural killer (NK) cell therapy and lead drug candidate ACE1702 in patients with HER2-expressing solid tumors. ACE1702 is Acepodia’s lead clinical product candidate developed from the Company’s proprietary ACC™ platform. It targets human HER2-expressing solid tumors using anti-HER2 antibody conjugated oNK cells. ACE1702 has demonstrated enhanced tumor cell killing activities both in vitro and in vivo, while maintaining a favorable safety profile in GLP toxicology studies. In preclinical studies, ACE1702 has shown enhanced tumor-killing activities against HER2 IHC 1+, 2+ and 3+ human cancer cells.  

One of the more interesting sessions was on the presidential election this year and the future of the biotech and pharma industries entitled “The Upcoming Election and Its Potential Impact on the Biopharma Industry.”  Chaired by James Greenwood, president and CEO of BIO, the most interesting comments came from Jeremy Levin, Chairman and CEO of Ovid Therapeutics.  Jeremy put some of the blame on the pharma pricing issues on the industry executives themselves, having created unbridled pricing structures to begin with, and should, therefore, responsibly repair them.  He also pushed back on any accusations that a Democratic presidential win would create an arbetura for socialism or a socialist-style economy – “there will never be socialism in this country. Never,” he confided. 

Against an infrastructure of $2,000 hotel rooms, $300 lobby tables, and $21 cups of coffee, there is discussion about moving JP Morgan to Las Vegas, or another city, in upcoming years. 

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