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Tri-county biotech firms tackle COVID-19 pandemic

By   /   Thursday, April 16th, 2020  /   Comments Off on Tri-county biotech firms tackle COVID-19 pandemic

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Life sciences companies in the Tri-Counties are stepping up with treatments for COVID-19, led by leaders in inhalable drug technologies.

Westlake Village-based MannKind said it expects $4.9 million in forgivable loan relief as part of the CARES Act, passed in March, as it explores four potential anti-infective and antiviral therapies. Separately, aerosolized drug delivery company Aerogen, with an office in Camarillo, has also ramped up production to meet a sharp increase in demand from health care systems.

Along with pharma giant Amgen, MannKind and Aerogen are just two of more than a dozen life sciences companies in the region that are working on ways to test for the deadly disease or treat it. Experts say that in the long run, the pandemic could spur new opportunities along the Highway 101 tech corridor.

The global pandemic is likely to spur “an even greater focus on the biotech life sciences industry, because now people realize the trillions of dollars that can be lost and the effect it can have on people’s lives if the right resources are not being devoted to it,” said Brent Reinke, founder and chairman of the Conejo Valley-based BioScience Alliance.

Thousand Oaks biotech heavyweight Amgen joined the development effort in early April, pursuing an antibody solution to the infection in partnership with Seattle-based Adaptive Biotechnologies.

“If successful, these antibodies could be used therapeutically for someone currently fighting the disease,” an Amgen spokesperson told the Business Times in an email. “They might also be given to people who have heightened near term risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, such as healthcare workers, to provide short term immunity to the virus.”

One antiviral treatment in the MannKind pipeline, part of a previously announced partnership with Los Angeles-based Immix Biopharma, has the potential to be developed as both a clinical strength and over-the-counter drug, said CEO Michael Castagna.

“You could see us developing something to treat COVID-19 that would serve both markets,” he said.

Drug delivery through the lungs could help reduce the dosage that needs to be delivered as well as minimizing side effects like harm to the liver or other organs. Treating the lungs directly could also help target symptoms where they occur, Castagna said, though the treatments would likely be more effective in earlier stages and tougher to administer for more advanced cases.

Castagna compared the crisis to his work with HIV in the 1990s and early 2000s, saying federal regulators are similarly supportive of bringing new treatments to market to fight the current crisis.

As part of the CARES Act funding, the company does not plan to lay off staff and announced management level employees and higher would take a 20 percent pay cut to avoid furloughing workers. Along with other cost cutting measures, the salary reductions are expected to save an additional $5 million to aid short-term cash flow, Castagna said.

The new drugs haven’t impacted the company’s current R&D pipeline, he added, though the cost to get products through the early phases of development, including formulation and proof of concept, are not high.

“That’s not the hard part,” Castagna said. “Once you get those powders, the hard part is can you scale them up?”

The drugs will likely then go to trials for stability and toxicity, where products that already have market applications will likely be quicker to gain approval for inhalable variations.

For the two anti-infection treatments, “Those are the types of examples where I could see a business partnership or a public-private partnership with a government or multiple governments.,” Castagna said. “We don’t expect our shareholders to bear the burden of this product development.”

Despite moves to protect biotechnology jobs, the crisis response has still meant major changes to the tri-county workforce as field sales teams have transitioned to a virtual environment, and companies pull new workers into production.

With 300 employees and $100 million in sales globally, Aerogen has added shifts on its production line and redeployed customer service, finance, marketing and other staff to help with assembly, packaging and shipping out products, said Brant Nave, vice president of commercial for the Americas region.

“They’re now production staff. We opened up a new line and everybody is there working. There really is a pretty strong altruistic motivation to keep the product going out,” Nave said. “Regardless of what position, even if that’s not your core passion or skillset, everybody’s chipping in right now to meet the need.”

The company’s products help deliver aerosolized drugs to patients on ventilators. Its sales staff have also faced challenges, as they rapidly transitioned to meeting hospital customers virtually to promote and train them on the products.

“By nature, they love being out meeting people face-to-face and not being stuck behind a telephone,” Nave said. “Overnight, that’s what we did to them.”

With air traffic, warehousing and other transportation scaled back radically worldwide, there have also been some close calls, he said, with orders arriving in a country the day they’re needed, while other Aerogen employees have had to drive shipments the last mile personally, Nave said.

Within the Tri-Counties, responses to the global pandemic have been split between potential new therapies and more rapid forms of testing, such as one in development by Thousand Oaks-based biomarker monitoring firm Proactive Diagnostics, Reinke said. Others, like Camarillo-based microbial detection firm Hygiena, have seen demand increase for products already on the market.

The Amgen-Adaptive deal and other increases in biotech activity represent just a few examples of the industry’s widespread response to the coronavirus crisis that includes billion-dollar deals by companies like Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, among others, which capitalize on their existing areas of expertise, said Globaldata infectious disease analyst Philipp Rosenbaum.

“While past historical data predicts that many of these development candidates will probably be terminated during clinical trial testing due to lack of efficacy or safety issues, we can be hopeful that the large number of collaborations could help find a possible treatment for COVID-19,” he wrote.

But while some are busier than ever, companies have to balance potential new opportunities with safety measures to protect employees, and most have pulled back operations to focus only on critically needed products, Reinke said.

• Contact Marissa Nall at [email protected]

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