On the back of the many drug approvals, startup foundations, and venture capital highs that were recorded in 2019, it seemed as though 2020 was going to be a comfortable year for the biotech industry globally. In what surprisingly ended being a strange year characterized by a pandemic that threw the global economy into turmoil; the biotech industry has come out stronger than ever this year. In fact, the coronavirus outbreak shone a spotlight on the industry, increasing interest in areas such as infectious disease and vaccines. Some of the biotech fields that have emerged as victorious this year include gene therapy, RNA therapeutics, and the application of artificial intelligence to drug discovery. Additionally, firms developing meat alternative products have witnessed a surge in investments as the market grows, while immune-oncology sub-sector continues a fundraising glut year after year.
However, certain areas in the industry did not have a great year. Small startups and nonprofit charities such as Cancer Research UK found it difficult to survive the pandemic chaos. Many biotech companies especially grappled with clinical trial delays. One notable casualty of the year was French Company MedDay Pharmaceuticals, which stopped operations after a crippling phase III failure in multiple sclerosis in March. With that backdrop, we have collated some of the biggest developments of 2020 in the biotechnology industry.
The global media was taken by storm when a Cardiff-based research found immune cells that could form the foundation of a universal cell therapy for cancer. This discovery was bought quickly by the UK startup Ervaxx, now known as Enara Bio. Subsequently, the academic group was a target of cyberattacks, likely as an attempt to access the research data.
The French investment company Jeito Capital was founded with a €200M fund to invest in biotech startups. In addition to the fund, the company brought to life a nonprofit foundation to assist healthcare startups with female founders.
The UK biotech firm Exscienta and its Japanese partner Sumitomo Dannipon Pharma launched one of the first-ever phase 1 trials of a drug uncovered with the assistance of artificial intelligence (AI) tools. The drug is aimed to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, and took only 12 months to get to human testing stage instead of the several years it typically takes.
A team of scientists’ developed brain cells in Italy send signals to electronic chips in Switzerland over the internet. This technology could one day let us connect our brains to machines over the internet, and make implantable AI chips that modify us to cure conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
The German company CureVac launched the development of a vaccine for the emerging disease Covid-19. CureVac’s vaccine candidate is manufactured from messenger RNA (mRNA), a kind of technology that could allow cheap and fast manufacturing of vaccines.
The UK firm Bicycle Therapeutics secured a deal with Genentech valued at €1.6b. The collaboration will pool both firm’s expertise to discover and commercialize cancer immunotherapies based on Bicycle’s peptide drugs, which are aimed to fight the strong target-binding properties of antibodies with the ease of manufacturing of small molecules.
The German mRNA heavyweight BioNTech joined the fray of companies developing Covid-19 vaccines, collaborating with Shanghai-based Fosun Pharma to develop Covid-19 vaccine candidates in China and with Pfizer for the rest of the world. This bolstered a trend of mRNA technology gaining traction in the biotech industry.
The UK firm Silence Therapeutics finalized a massive €3.6B deal with Pharma giant AstraZeneca. Together they launched the development of treatments that block disease-causing genes via a process known as RNA interference (RNAi).
Against the uncertainty triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Dutch investment company Life Science Partners announced one of the largest ever European life sciences fundraises valued at €528m.
The FDA announced it won’t impose any sanction on Novartis following a data manipulation scandal in 2019. The scandal revolved around the FDA approval of the gene therapy Zolgensma to treat spinal muscular atrophy, a fake data had been detected in the application. In May 2020, EMA would approve Zolgensma for the same indication.
A drug developed by the Swiss Pharma firm Idorsia was discovered to lower insomnia in a phase III trial, where it proved to be the first drug to be free of the ‘hangover’ effects of several current sleep medications. Idorsia has since began preparations to commercialize the drug following another successful phase III trial in July.
A €114m Series B was finalized to fund the development of Belgian company iTeos Therapeutics’ cancer immunotherapy vaccines. This comes only a month after the immune-oncology industry witnessed another huge €117m Series B by the UK firm Immunocore. Therapeutics would later round up a €165m IPO on the NASDAQ in July.
After months of delay, the French firm Genfit finally announced that its drug manufactured to treat the liver condition NASH didn’t pass the phase III trial. Subsequently in September, Genfit unveiled plans to stop the NASH program, laid off 40% of its workforce, and shift attention to different programs.
The Swiss firm ADC Therapeutics exceeded its €172m target in a NASDAQ IPO, raising €215m. The company is using the money to fund the commercialization of its antibody-drug conjugate candidate for blood cancer. The firm later applied for EDA approval in September.
The immune-oncology sector recorded another big cash inflow in the form of a €3.4B deal between US giant AbbVie and the Danish antibody manufacturer Genmab. The deal targeted three-phase I-stage bispecific antibody drugs that boost the ability of immune T cells to kill tumor cells.
The German government took the bold step of taking up a 23% stake in CureVac for €300m. This was a substantial move in a bid to prevent the news making rounds about the alleged acquisition of CureVac by the US. CureVac’s ongoing cash influx would culminate in a €180m NASDAQ IPO in August.
The UK Supreme court made a ruling revoking key patents held by the US antibody powerhouse Regeneron in response to an appeal by the UK company Kymab. It was a significant ruling in a patent war that has been ongoing for seven years. The revoked patents related to the manufacturing of antibody drugs in mice and were condemned by Kymab’s supporters as an attempt to stifle small innovators in the biotech industry.
Amid a surge in the number of biotech firms launching IPOs in 2020, the German company Immatics stood out as one of the few that went public without an IPO. Instead, the firm listed via merging with a Special Purpose Acquisition company (SPAC), which provides a more stable alternative to IPOs.
Pharma companies and public funders pooled their financial resources to setup the AMR Action Fund, an €870M money pot that would aid the development of new antibiotics. The fund was aimed at shoring up a neglected antibiotics field as the threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs increases.
The EMA approved Gilead’s antiviral drug remdesivir as the first official Covid-19 treatment. The approval was on the back of initial studies suggesting the drug reduced recovery time in Covid-19 patients. However, the drug has not sufficiently proved its benefits on Covid-19 mortality and hospital stays.
The FDA turned down two treatments for inflammatory conditions. The first was a skin patch treating peanut allergies from the French firm DBV Technologies. The second was a rheumatoid arthritis drug manufactured by Gilead in collaboration with the Belgian company Galapagos. The latter would later go on to be approved in the EU and Japan in September.
The UK biotech firm Oxitec received the regulatory green light for the first US pilot study of genetically modified mosquitoes that can prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. Around the same time, the nonprofit World Mosquito Program discovered that its own non-genetically modified strain lowered dengue transmission by a substantial 77% in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
The first-ever hepatitis D drug was developed by the German firm MYR Pharmaceuticals a few week after the World Hepatitis day and was subsequently given conditional approval by the EMA. MYR Pharmaceuticals was later acquired by Gilead in a deal valued at €1.45b in December, with the likelihood of a quick approval on the horizon.
Roche acquired the Irish biotech Inflazome in a deal worth €380m. The deal is a major part of the bid for a class of drugs known as NLRP3 inhibitors to treat inflammatory diseases. Big Pharma firms have recorded a handful of takeovers in this area as NLRP3 inhibitors have the prospect to combat a wide range of inflammatory conditions.
The UK firm Compass Pathways raised €108m in a NASDAQ IPO to fund the commercialization of psychedelic medications for treating clinical depression. This IPO was followed by a €105m series C round raised by German company ATAI Life Sciences in November.
The Alzheimer’s sector recorded a significant blow when an antibody drug developed by the Swiss company Genentech and AC Immune failed in phase II. These were the first phase II results from an Alzheimer’s antibody medication that targets a protein known as tau.
The European Circular Bioeconomy Fund was launched with a target size of €250m to speed up the scaleup and commercialization of technology that could convert trash, such as food waste, into valuable products. This was part of the agenda to meet the sustainability goals in the EU’s Green New Deal.
The Israeli firm BiondVax’s effort to have its universal flu vaccine approved was dashed in Phase III and the company’s stock price plummeted. This failure was particularly poignant given the incoming threat of the winter season and the difficulties of facing both Covid-19 and winter flu.
Two prominent developers of the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
The frontrunner Covid-19 vaccines from Western countries started to complete phase iii trials. In the lead were BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, Moderna's mRNA drug candidates achieved over 90% effectiveness at preventing Covid-19 infections. Trailing behind was a drug candidate developed by AstraZeneca in collaboration with the University of Oxford, which scored achieved 70% in efficiency tests.
The Dutch company uniQure released the first-ever phase III results of a gene therapy to treat the blood clotting disorder hemophilia B. The treatment lowered the need for clotting protein replacement injections – a part of life for hemophilia patients – by 96%.
The UK became the first Western country to approve a covid-19 vaccine, with BioNTech and Pfizer’s drug candidate rolling out within days of the announcement. Canada and the United States followed suit within weeks by approving the same vaccine.
Merck KGaA recruited the UK Biotech Artios Pharma in a mouthwatering €5.7B deal to manufacture and co-develop vaccines against up to eight cancer forms. Artios specializes in manufacturing cancer drugs that prevent tumor cells from repairing their DNA, known as DNA damage response inhibitors.
2020 was a year where we see scientists and researchers coming together to develop technology that would bring therapeutics that many haven't heard before. Ultimately, these breakthroughs brought back hope for a world that was waiting to see hope in a pandemic. May 2021 continue to build on the innovations and medical breakthroughs that we experience in 2020, and may we continue to strive for a better world filled with empathy.