Passage Bio chips away at workforce, prioritizes R&D with UPenn's James Wilson

Passage Bio is doubling down on a partnership with James Wilson, M.D., Ph.D, and his University of Pennsylvania lab even as the gene therapy biotech plans to trim its workforce 13% in the latest of a string of setbacks. 

The decision to cut staff and prioritize R&D from the Wilson partnership is centered on extending the company's cash runway into the second quarter of 2024 and reducing operating expenses, according to a Tuesday release

"By aligning our organization and our foundational partnership with GTP [Gene Therapy Program] around a more focused R&D strategy, we are well-positioned to execute against our ongoing clinical trials and advance our mission," said Bruce Goldsmith, Ph.D., president and CEO of Passage in a  statement. 

As a part of the staffing cuts, a new face will now oversee future clinical updates, as chief research and development officer Eliseo Salinas, M.D. is retiring Friday. His work overseeing ongoing clinical trials will be replaced by CMO Mark Forman, M.D., Ph.D.

It’s the latest setback for Passages after 2021 was marked by executive turnover and allegations against the company’s chief science advisor Wilson and the lab he runs at UPenn. A November 2021 report from the university’s student newspaper cited 11 current and former staffers of the Gene Therapy Program who say Wilson helped foster a toxic and dysfunctional work environment. Earlier in the year, the company also replaced both its chief medical officer and chief financial officer. 

Passage Bio, which in 2020 expanded the collaboration with Wilson and the GTP through 2025, did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations in light of today’s job cuts. So far, Passage has exercised nine out of 17 licensing options with the university. 

The latest money-saving move comes after administrative costs doubled in 2021 compared to 2020, eclipsing $60 million. But the primary cash burn is in R&D, which cost the company nearly $118 million in 2021. 

The company hit the ground running in 2019 with an early portfolio of five candidates targeting central nervous system diseases with an option to tack on an additional seven candidates in collaboration with UPenn. Passage's therapies use adeno-associated virus vectors to transfer gene copies directly to the source, encoding proteins that are ultimately secreted.

As of now, the company’s current pipeline is 11 candidates deep. However, only three are in the clinic. The leader of the pipeline is an asset for gangliosidosis in kids, an inherited disease that destroys cells in the brain and spinal cord. The company reported positive interim safety data in December 2021 from an ongoing phase 1/2 trial and is expanding to two additional cohorts this year. 

In addition to gangliosidosis, the company has two other candidates in the clinic, one for Krabbe disease and the other for frontotemporal dementia. Passage plans to dose initial patients in phase 1/2 trials for those candidates early this year. 

Passage also plans to ask the FDA to push another therapy into human trials by mid-2022, this time for metachromatic leukodystrophy. To bolster R&D efforts, the company hopes to be up-and-running at a new manufacturing site in Hopewell, New Jersey by the end of the year. 

While the company has taken a scattershot approach to its pipeline, its journey on Wall Street has been a slow burn. After ascending briefly following an oversubscribed $216 million IPO in February 2020, Passage peaked in January 2021 and has since plummeted 90%, down more than $20 to $2.84 per share as of Tuesday morning. 

Regardless, the company still entered 2022 with a hefty chest of funds, tallying more than $315 million in cash and assets.