Ex-Ionis/Akcea exec Sarah Boyce takes charge at Avidity

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Avidity struck a partnership with Eli Lilly in April that yielded $35 million upfront but could rake in hundreds of millions in milestone dollars. (Dominik Moser)

Last week, Sarah Boyce walked out the doors of Akcea Therapeutics. This week, she’s the CEO of Avidity Biosciences, a company aiming to take antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) to the next level by combining antibodies and oligonucleotides—or short DNA or RNA molecules. 

Attaching drugs to antibodies to take advantage of their selective nature isn’t a new idea—multiple players are working on ADCs to deliver cell-killing drugs to cancer cells without affecting healthy tissue. Despite hundreds of clinical trials in the space, only a handful of ADCs have reached market, thanks to the complexity of this class of drugs. 

Combining antibodies with oligonucleotides would make treatment even more precise, Avidity says. 

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"The Avidity technology is an extension of ADC technology however in the case of Avidity’s AOCs, the payload is designed to be highly specific to a disease-related RNA rather than a highly toxic small molecule designed to kill the targeted cell," said Kent Hawryluk, Avidity's chief business officer, in an email earlier this year. "This technology opens up the possibility of creating AOCs that target numerous cell types and diseases where ADC were too toxic or where traditional oligonucleotide therapeutics could not reach." 

RELATED: Lilly taps Avidity's antibody-oligonucleotide conjugate tech in $35M deal

The La Jolla, California-based biotech struck a $35 million partnership with Eli Lilly in April, under which Avidity will use its technology to find new targets and push new medicines toward the clinic. Lilly handed over $20 million and invested $15 million in Avidity upfront, but it could be on the hook for up to $405 million in milestone payments for each target it chooses to move forward. Lilly and Avidity did not disclose how many targets this could total. 

RELATED: 2017's Fiercest Women in Life Sciences | Sarah Boyce—Ionis 

Boyce started her career in Big Pharma, embarking on a self-training course as a sales representative at Merck before moving onto Roche and Novartis, where she spent a decade moving up the ranks. She had a couple of stints at Alexion and Forest Labs before landing at Ionis, where she was chief business officer for three years before becoming president of Ionis’ spinout, Akcea, in 2018. 

On Monday last week, Akcea announced that Ionis Chief Business Officer Damien McDevitt would take over Akcea as interim CEO as Boyce, along with Paula Soteropoulos, Akcea’s CEO, and Jeff Goldberg, the chief operating officer, headed for the exit. 

The moves came nearly a year after Akcea’s first FDA nod, for the hereditary transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis treatment Tegsedi. Its second drug, Waylivra (volanesorsen), scored EU approval earlier this year, but hasn’t fared quite as well in the U.S. An FDA advisory panel recommended its approval in a narrow 12-8 vote last year, but the agency served up a complete response letter three months later.

Editor's note: This story was edited to correct Sarah Boyce's role at Akcea.

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