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Biotech startups snag $48M from CARB-X pact to combat superbugs

The fight against so-called superbugs — deadly bacteria that have grown resistant to antibacterials — just got a multimillion-dollar infusion of cash from a public-private partnership formed to speed the development of innovative technologies coming out of small biotechnology companies.

About a dozen small biotechs, most of them startups, landed $24 million in immediate funds and the potential to earn another $24 million in milestone-based payments over the next three years from the Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator, or CARB-X, to advance new medicines and diagnostics aimed at treating superbugs.

The deadly pathogens kill as many as 700,000 people worldwide each year, including 23,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All told, the firms — Cidara Therapeutics Inc., ContraFect Corp., Entasis Therapeutics Inc., Forge Therapeutics Inc., Microbiotix Inc., Oppilotech Ltd., Proteus IRC, Redx Pharma PLC, Spero Therapeutics LLC, Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals Inc.. and Visterra Inc. — are expected to develop three potential new classes of antibiotics, four innovative nontraditional products and seven new molecular targets against the deadly bugs under the collaboration.

All of the potential new medicines will target gram-negative bacteria prioritized by the CDC and the World Health Organization, officials said.

Biotechs drive innovation

"Biotech companies are what's driving innovation in antibacterial drug development," said Joe Larsen, director of the Division of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Medical Countermeasure at the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, whose agency is funding a significant portion of the collaboration.

"There's been a pretty significant exodus of large pharmaceutical companies doing preclinical, early stage antibiotic programs," Larsen told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "We're really in an era of commercialization, not innovation, when it comes to big pharma's involvement in antibacterial development. The model is the biotechs do the innovating and get the molecule to a certain point, where it's de-risked enough for the larger companies to come in and purchase it and commercialize it."

Of the last eight antibiotics approved in the U.S., only one maintained its ownership from discovery through approval, Larsen pointed out.

"The others changed hands an average of 2.89 times," he said. "The fact we are supporting these small companies is pretty indicative that we are targeting innovation in a really robust way."

Just the start

The $48 million is just the initial investment expected over five years from CARB-X, a global public-private collaboration of BARDA, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — agencies within U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — and the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in London.

Wellcome is putting up $155.5 million over the five-year period, while BARDA plans to make an investment of $250 million, including $30 million already provided in 2016 to launch CARB-X, Larsen said.

The BARDA funds, however, are dependent on congressional approval.

NIAID is providing support in the form of preclinical services. Other partners involved in CARB-X, which is being run as a nonprofit out of Boston University School of Law, include the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the California Life Sciences Institute, the AMR Centre and RTI International.

The total investment from the pact is expected to be worth about $450 million, Larsen said.

CARB-X was launched in July 2016 in response to the President Barack Obama's 2015 National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria initiative and the call by the U.K. government for a concerted global effort to tackle antibiotic resistance and is an experiment for BARDA, Larsen said, noting that the agency generally provides funds to carry midstage development products into the later stages.