Chutes & Ladders—Biden lands on leader for new agency that will oversee 'cancer moonshot' initiatives

 Chutes and LaddersWelcome to this week's Chutes & Ladders, our roundup of hirings, firings and retirings throughout the industry. Please send the good word—or the bad—from your shop to Max Bayer or Gabrielle Masson, and we will feature it here at the end of each week. 

Biden set to appoint Wegrzyn ARPA-H director

The White House

President Joe Biden has landed on a leader for his new federal biotech agency aimed at overseeing his ambitious “cancer moonshot” initiatives. Renee Wegrzyn, a veteran of the federal government and current executive at Ginkgo Bioworks, is slated to be the inaugural director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). 

ARPA-H is the manifestation of Biden’s larger ambitions for reducing the cancer death rate—shaving it 50% over the next 25 years, to be exact. For comparison, from 2001 to 2020, the cancer death rate dropped 27%.

In Wegrzyn, Biden has named an experienced former government official who most recently has shifted toward biotech business development. Ginkgo Bioworks is looking to harness organisms to develop new biological products. It also has a testing wing, Concentric, which has risen in prominence since the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to joining Ginkgo, Wegrzyn spent nearly four and a half years as a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Release

Top Rome brass look to build new clinical empire at Pretzel

Pretzel Therapeutics

Top brass from Rome Therapeutics are committing themselves to a new venture, launching Pretzel Therapeutics to build out a slate of mitochondrial-focused medicines. Led by Jay Parrish, Ph.D., the company is hitting the biotech scene armed with $72.5 million in initial cash. Parrish co-founded Rome Therapeutics and most recently was chief business officer at Vir Biotechnology, the latter of which was able to nab FDA authorization for its GSK-partnered COVID-19 treatment. 

Joining Parrish will be another Rome colleague, Baruch Harris, Ph.D., who’s coming along as chief operating officer. At Rome, Harris was senior vice president of business development after being a senior adviser for the BD team at Fierce 15 winner Yumanity. Last but not least, the company announced that Gabriel Martinez, Ph.D., will be the company’s chief scientific officer. Before becoming a vice president at Praxis, Martinez gained experience at a couple of larger pharmas, including Vertex and AstraZeneca. 

The company’s launch announcement says that dysfunctional mitochondria are associated with more than 50 diseases. The organelle is located in most cells and works on respiration and energy production. Pretzel says it will correct function through three main avenues: genome correction, changing how the genome is expressed and “mictochondrial quality control.” Release

Scorpion Therapeutics snags another exec from Big Pharma   

Scorpion Therapeutics

Scorpion Therapeutics has signed on Sanofi’s Michael Streit, M.D., to be its first chief medical officer and guide the biotech as it advances two oncology candidates toward the clinic in 2023. 

Most recently, Streit served as Sanofi’s vice president and senior project head. Prior to that, he held leadership positions at GSK and Johnson & Johnson’s R&D unit Janssen.

Streit told Fierce Biotech that he was drawn to biotech’s sense of urgency to translate scientific hypotheses into new therapeutic targets and ultimately effective treatment modalities. Now, he will oversee Scorpion’s two lead assets: STX-478, which is being tested predominantly in patients with breast cancer, and STX-721, which has been designed to target certain forms of non-small cell lung cancer.

“I was very impressed with the company’s strategy, resources and ambition to develop transformational therapies for the most challenging forms of cancer,” Streit said. “But it was really the people and the unique culture that sealed the deal.”

Streit isn’t the first big name Scorpion has snagged—the Boston biotech is helmed by Axel Hoos, M.D., Ph.D., who left GSK to become the company’s CEO last year. Fierce Biotech

> ObsEva is laying off 70% of its staff, including Chief Strategy Officer Katja Buhrer. The move will provide annual savings of $7.6 million, the company said. Fierce Pharma

> Spero Therapeutics has tapped Kamal Hamed, M.D., to serve as chief medical officer. Hamed comes from Lysovant Sciences, where he was CMO, and has previously held leadership roles at Basilea Pharmaceutica, Novartis, Bristol Myers Squibb and Bayer. Release

> Ruben Tommasi, Ph.D., has left Entasis Therapeutics for Dunad Therapeutics, where he will lead the company’s R&D efforts. Tommasi helped spin out Entasis from AstraZeneca in 2015, and spent nearly 17 years at Novartis before AstraZeneca. Release 

> Gavin Hirst, Ph.D., is joining San Francisco-based Atomwise as chief scientific officer. Most recently, Hirst served as interim CSO of Turning Point Therapeutics, which was acquired for $4.1 billion by Bristol Myers Squibb in August. Hirst has previously held leadership roles at J&J’s Janssen and Takeda. Release  

> After unveiling its oncology pipeline in June, Nutcracker Therapeutics is adding Rob Schott, M.D., to its team. Schott, who joins from Sangamo Therapeutics, will serve as chief medical officer. Release 

> New biotech Capstan Therapeutics will be helmed by Laura Shawver, Ph.D., the former CEO of Silverback Therapeutics and Synthorx. Shawver joins a burgeoning team of industry vets including Chief Scientific Officer Adrian Bot, M.D., Ph.D., and Chief Technology Officer Priya Karmali, Ph.D. Fierce Biotech 

> Cellics Therapeutics has appointed Paul Daruwala as president and CEO, effective Oct. 1. Daruwala comes to Cellics from Cidara Therapeutics, where he served as chief operating officer. He also held numerous executive roles before that across Bristol Myers Squibb, Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Merck & Co. Release

> Antibody biotech ProMIS Neurosciences has a new CEO—Gail Farfel, Ph.D.—starting Sept. 19. Before ProMIS, Farfel served as EVP and chief development officer of Zogenix. Earlier, she held positions of increasing responsibility at Smithkline Beecham, Pfizer, Novartis, G. Meredith Consulting and Marinus Pharmaceuticals. Release

> Parexel is shaking up its leadership team with two internal promotions: Peyton Howell to the newly created role of chief operating and growth officer and Amy McKee, M.D., to chief medical officer and global head of the oncology center of excellence. Howell joined the company in 2018 and most recently served as president of consulting and chief commercial & strategy officer, while McKee joined Parexel in 2019 as VP of regulatory consulting services after spending 11 years with the FDA. Release  

> ImmPACT Bio, a clinical-stage company developing CAR-T cell therapies, has tapped Jonathan Benjamin, M.D., Ph.D., to serve as chief medical officer. Benjamin most recently served as SVP of clinical research at Atreca, and, before that, was as medical director at Amgen. Release  

> Vyriad, a biotech developing oncolytic virus therapies to treat cancer, has appointed Scott Beck to serve as chief operating officer. Over the past 30 years, Beck has held many leadership roles at Mayo Clinic, most recently serving as COO for laboratory services. Release 

> Fabric Genomics, an AI-driven precision medicine company, has appointed Sean Hofherr, Ph.D., as chief operating officer and clinical director. Hofherr comes from GeneDx, where he served as chief scientific officer. Release 

> Martin Steegmaier, Ph.D., has joined clinical-stage immuno-oncology company Sotio Biotech as its chief scientific officer. Most recently, Steegmaier served as the global research head at MorphoSys after its acquisition of Constellation Pharmaceuticals. Release

> Biolojic Design has appointed Ronald Herbst, Ph.D. as chief scientific officer, effective Oct. 3. The 28-year industry vet comes from Pyxis Oncology—where he served as CSO—and also has worked at MedImmune and AstraZeneca. Release