Axovant pivots with new gene therapy, Spark co-founder as CTO

After a disastrous year in which its Alzheimer’s attempts blew up and the once biotech star David Hung jumped ship, Axovant is continuing its change-up with a new focus and a new executive.

Today, the Roivant neuro company has licensed Oxford Biomedica’s gene therapy OXB-102, now AXO-Lenti-PD, for Parkinson’s disease.

The biotech will gain $25 million in share buys from its parent company for work on the med, and Axovant says it expects to kick-start a phase 1/2 dose escalation study in patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease by the end of 2018.

Under the deal, Axovant gains Lenti-PD, as well as its predecessor product ProSavin (a lentiviral vector-based gene therapy for PD), for a payment of just $30 million in cash, $5 million of which “will be applied as a credit against the process development work and clinical supply that Oxford BioMedica will provide to Axovant,” and follows the low-cost approach that Roivant typically employs when licensing ex-biopharma meds.  

Meanwhile, U.K.-based Oxford BioMedica is in line to gain extra biobucks worth up to $812 million, as well as royalties on sales of AXO-Lenti-PD, if it gets approved.

And to help with this gene therapy work on the ground, it’s also poached Spark Therapeutics’ scientific co-founder and former chief tech officer Fraser Wright, Ph.D,  as its new CTO, using his experience on gene therapy Luxturna, which gained FDA approval last year and a hefty price tag.

This all comes as the biotech pivots away from his disastrous foray into Alzheimer’s, which produced two flops and saw the swift exit of its former CEO, coming after a pretty embarrassing J.P. Morgan event back in January.

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The company has since been trying to reset, remaining as a neuroscience biotech but with a new CEO in the form of Pavan Cheruvu, M.D., and a new CMO Gavin Corcoran, formerly of Allergan.

The idea too has been to refocus the pipeline on new deals, and this gene therapy license is the start of that re-think as Vivek Ramaswamy hopes for better luck second-time round in a different therapy area. But it won't be easy: gene therapy is a much tougher proposition than Axovant is used to dealing with, and investors will be watching; it shares were worth less than $2 last night, coming after being worth around $26 last September, before the flops and exits stung the biotech badly. 

It seemed to be the right tonic for now, as its shares jumped around 100% this morning on the news, hitting around $3.50, although still far down from the high days of its IPO.