By Jonathan D. Grinstein, PhD

Having served on Moderna’s board of directors and led a team to ensure Moderna’s readiness for its initial public offering in 2018, John Mendlein, PhD, can speak to the potential of programmable medicines.

“Programmable medicine, writ large, means the ability to program a cell inside the human body—it’s a very powerful approach,” said Mendlein, who joined Flagship Pioneering as an executive partner in 2019. “Obviously, the COVID-19 vaccines are a great example of that.”

Beyond co-founding and bankrolling Moderna, Flagship Pioneering has been heavily involved in programmable medicine for some time, backing other companies in this space, such as Senda Biosciences and Laronde, which Mendlein was brought in to lead as CEO of Laronde in August 2022.

Now, Senda Biosciences and Laronde have merged to form a new company called Sail Biosciences, uniting their visions to design and deploy fully programmable medicines to transform patient care.

“The opportunity here is impacting medicine in a very profound way by changing the productivity for the biopharma industry and bringing much more medicine to more patients in a more predictable way than possibly ever again,” said Guillaume Pfefer, PhD, CEO of Sail Biosciences. “We’re getting a taste of it with what BioNTech and Pfizer have achieved on the mRNA side for COVID-19 vaccines.

The idea of Sail Biosciences combines several years of work on two different platforms and addresses the basic elements of what is needed to make a programmable medicine. One such element is the payload; the other is how to deliver the payload to the right cell at the right time. Those two things are integrated together.

Laronde was built around its endless RNA (eRNA) payloads, designed with unique properties to enable stable, long-lasting, and targeted in vivo expression of any protein. Senda—which also has an mRNA engine for programming and synthesis of mRNA for specific properties, including sub-cellular localization and therapeutic function intended to drive within the cell—was heavily focused on developing program nanoparticles with desired bioproperties, such as targeting a specific tissue or cell.

“What we’re embarking on at Sail Biosciences is to take the best new payload that’s out there, which is endless RNA (eRNA)—and we’ve got lots of experiments to show that it can do things that biologics or modified mRNA cannot do—and combine that with what we believe is an industry-leading deployment system or set of molecules that’s been discovered by Senda to take those payloads to places where they wouldn’t be able to go with LNPs,” said Mendlein, who is now executive chairman at Sail Biosciences. “That’s the real core opportunity—a great payload plus a great deployment system.”

Mendlein said that the other element that was important in forming Sail Biosciences, which is not necessarily embedded in the product per se, is the ability to design or generate molecules in this integrated design space of payload and deployment system that is based on artificial intelligence (AI).

“These are big spaces to tour; they’re beyond the grasp of the human mind,” said Mendlein. “Generally speaking, what does a hundred pennies look like? What does a thousand pennies look like? What does a billion pennies look like? Those are hard things for the human mind to grasp. We operate in much bigger numbers than those, and so the inventions of the future in this area, we think, could heavily rely on AI to be able to do that. That’s a muscle that we’ve been growing to help us both on the payload side and the deployment side.”

Mendlein said that the company was named Sail Biosciences for a few different reasons. One, a sail connotes power, and they believe that they have a very powerful platform for programmable medicines going forward. Two, embedded in the term “sail” is “AI,” which is a very important aspect of what they’re going to do going forward. Three, they believe that the company will be able to sail to new therapeutic destinations using a combination of the Senda and Laronde technologies.

Along these lines, Pfefer said that Sail will not exclude looking at payloads and deployment systems beyond programmable mRNAs and LNPs, respectively, down the road.

Alternate ending

While the merger between Senda and Laronde makes sense in terms of the complementary capabilities, it’s possible that there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye.

It may go back to when Mendlein was brought on board as an interim CEO to take over for then-CEO Diego Miralles at Laronde about a year on the heels of having raised a $440 million series B in August 2021. A Stat and Boston Globe investigation in June 2023 said that in February 2022, Laronde had parted ways with a veteran scientist Catherine Cifuentes-Rojas due to misgivings about data produced that had circulated for roughly a year.

Within the next few weeks, Laronde made a company statement that said the data in question pertained to their application of eRNA to the expression and secretion of therapeutic peptides. This case pertained to wildtype GLP-1, which has been all over the news in recent months for being the target of the weight-loss prescription drug Wegovy and the diabetes drug Ozempic, both of which are forms of semaglutide.

Laronde stated that they found that they were using unreliable data from historic GLP-1 experiments for the therapeutic-peptide application, and certain individuals involved in that historic GLP-1 data were no longer with Laronde, however, that the CEO’s departure in 2022 was not tied to concerns about data or experiments, and other personnel decisions made in 2022 were made by Laronde’s HR and leadership teams.

But Pfefer told GEN Edge that Senda and Laronde were operating as independent companies looking at the best possible way to move forward to execute their vision of creating medicines.

“We looked at how we could accelerate our path to programming medicine, and we had many attempts to look at what technologies out there would complement, accelerate, and expand Senda’s ability to move toward that vision,” said Pfefer, who is also a CEO partner at Flagship and served as CEO and Board Member at Senda.

Part of that analysis is to ask how unique each system is, whether it has an independent value proposition in and of itself, and how much of that value proposition is supported by scientific evidence.

“Because each company’s business plan is dependent on a payload plus a deployment system, both companies looked beyond the Flagship ecosystem at a number of different payload and deployment companies,” said Mendlein. “That’s where both companies are very strong, particularly on the deployment side.”

We are a long way out from seeing if the merger between Senda and Laronde will replicate the success of BioNTech and Pfizer. Depending on whether Sail Biosciences will be the next Moderna could likely rewrite the history of this merger. If Sail Biosciences is successful, it most likely will be attributed to the complementation of methods and not the burying of a company and its name.

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