Gene therapy startup Passage Bio nabs Janssen neuro lead as CMO

Philadelphia skyline
Philadelphia-based Passage Bio has raised more than $300 million in its first two funding rounds this year. (Bruce Emmerling/Pixabay)

Mere weeks after getting off a major $110 million series B round, well-funded Passage Bio has grabbed a new C-suite member on top of its cash haul.

The Philadelphia biotech has raided Janssen’s exec team, nabbing Gary Romano, M.D., Ph.D., as its chief medical officer. Romano comes off a six-year stint as the J&J biotech unit’s head of clinical development for neurodegenerative disease and the deputy leader of the neurodegenerative disease therapeutic area. Before this, he headed up Merck’s central nervous system unit.

“Gary … brings deep industry knowledge and drug development expertise that will be pivotal to Passage’s success as we move our lead programs into the clinic over the coming year,” said Dr. Stephen Squinto, co-founder and interim CEO at Passage Bio.

“I am confident (his) expertise will aptly serve our mission to support patients suffering from rare monogenic CNS diseases, and I look forward to continuing to expand our team of esteemed leaders to support our rapid organizational growth.”

It’s a big get for a little startup, but fits within its impressive cash haul: That $110 million series B followed its $116 million series A earlier in the year.

And Squinto isn’t kidding about its rapidity, as the biotech plans to use the money under the guidance of its new CMO to move two gene therapies into the clinic in the first half of next year, hewing closely to the strategy it sketched out in its first raise back in February. Those programs target rare pediatric disease GM1 gangliosidosis and neurodegenerative disorder frontotemporal dementia.

Passage Bio also recently grabbed a new program in the form of a progressive nervous system condition Krabbe disease. Passage Bio expects to take that gene therapy into humans in the second half of 2020. If Passage Bio hits that target, it will have taken three assets into the clinic within two years of properly getting started as a company.

That rate of progress is underpinned by work at Passage Bio’s academic partners. The University of Pennsylvania’s Gene Therapy Program is doing IND-enabling work on the treatments. Once a program gets past that stage, Passage Bio will take over for clinical development and beyond.

Work is also underway to establish the infrastructure needed to support the expanding pipeline. In July, Passage Bio entered into an agreement with Paragon Gene Therapy to set up a dedicated production suite. The suite, which is due to start operating in the second half of 2020, will support Passage Bio as it works to meet clinical and potentially commercial demand for its gene therapies.