Meet Bianca Ogden: The PhD in Platinum's Biotech crown

Ally Selby

Livewire Markets

The reopening play has recently resurfaced as a popular theme amongst investors, with fund managers and punters alike looking through what we all hope to be the last of Australia's lockdowns. 

It's a sentiment that causes Platinum's Dr Bianca Ogden to crinkle her brow. Ogden, armed with a PhD in virology, knows that we are going to have to learn to live with COVID-19, just as we do with other viruses such as the flu, or even HIV.

The real issue, according to Ogden, is vaccination fatigue. As the portfolio manager of the firm's International Health Care Fund, she looks to global examples in Germany and the US as her guide. 

"I don't think we are out of the woods just yet," she says. 

In this profile, we discuss several exciting areas of opportunity within biotechnology, including advances made in the molecular profiling of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease. 

We also discuss new headways made in gene therapies, how the merging of molecular biology and automation has helped biotechs run up to a million experiments each week, as well as why the area of epigenomics has recently sparked her interest. 

And because I am pretty sure I know what you came here for, there are 10 of these exciting opportunities outlined below in this profile. 

A kickass career in biotech

Unlike the majority of fund managers, Ogden didn't start off her career in finance with an education in economics, accounting or business. Instead, she studied molecular biology in Germany, before topping that off with a PhD in virology at UCL in London. 

She spent a year studying HIV with Novartis in Switzerland, before landing a role with Johnson & Johnson in Sydney, where she dipped her toes into the world of discovering new drug targets for colon cancer. Upon realising that funding was what helped new technologies and therapies get off the ground, she sidestepped over to a career in funds management with the now $23 billion powerhouse that is Platinum. 

It's this background in science that Ogden believes gives her a leg-up over the competition. She's able to speak the language of the firms she invests in and argues her training in biotechnology allows her to assess companies in a different way to most. 

"It's interesting because if you're a scientist you are used to failure - most of your experiments tend not to work," she says. 

"You are always looking for how you can do something different, or how you can improve. And it's no different as an investor, particularly in this field, because things change quite often and you have to adapt."

During her 18 years with Platinum, Ogden has found that biotech investors often just look for how they can invest in the next catalyst. 

"I don't do that. To me, it's much more important to look at what is changing in the next decade or in the next five years and really understand what are the key themes and how we can invest alongside them," she says. 

The idea of looking to the future is one held close to scientists' hearts, she says. Ogden notes that early in her career when she worked with protease inhibitors for HIV, it was all about predicting what mutations could occur and how that could affect the structure of the viral protease.

Proteases are enzymes that cut proteins. Both humans and viruses have protease but they are specific for each virus. Virologists like to target them with drugs as they are specific for the virus and essential to the viral lifecycle, Ogden explains. 

"You constantly had to think about, if I try this, what happens then? And that's a similar thing in biotech... It's all about what happens when this particular company produces the drug and it comes to market," she says. 

"The standard of care will be quite different in the future, so you need to constantly think about what could happen. And I think as a scientist, you're very well prepared for that and you don't just treat companies like spreadsheets."
Bianca Ogden with her parents in Austria. Source: supplied.

Ogden's insight on COVID-19: We have to learn to live with it

I think it's safe to say that we are ready for COVID-19 to be a distant memory of the past. According to Johns Hopkins University, the original coronavirus and its strains have taken the lives of more than 4.6 million, with the majority of cases (and deaths) in the US and India. In comparison, Australia has recorded 79,059 cases and 1,116 deaths - still a heartbreaking figure. 

Unfortunately, Ogden says, it's unlikely that the world will return to normal in the near future. 

"There are a lot of people who want it to be over," she says. 

"But I think what we have to understand is that we have to live with viruses and we have to live with this coronavirus. It is not going to just disappear and everything will go back to the way it was."

She notes the phenomenal path of mRNA vaccines in their ability to limit symptoms of COVID-19. These vaccines have helped "buy us time" for the next generation of vaccines to come through, Ogden says, but are not the answer to our worries. 

"I know people would like to do the reopening trade and play it in the big themes. I'd rather focus on what helps us to live with it," she says. 

Nearing the end of the year, we should see some data come out of multinational pharmaceutical corporation Sanofi (EPA: SAN), which is developing a protein-based vaccine that could potentially give people further longevity on immunity, Ogden says. 

Looking forward to 2022, there are other companies that could potentially release new vaccines with longer duration, she says. 

"We have invested in a company called Icosavax (NASDAQ: ICVX) that comes with a new vaccine using viral-like particles (VLPs)," Ogden says. 

"We will see data around that potentially, again with more duration. And then we will see new antiviral therapies come through. Once we get to that, that's when we really will see a real change happening." 

A the time of writing, 35% of Australia's population is fully vaccinated, while 56% have had one dose. Meantime, Israel is doubling down on administering booster shots for its population. 

"I think in many ways, it probably would've been the best solution to have three shots, but because there were obviously supply and demand issues, we settled on two," Ogden says. 

"I'm not surprised that some will need a booster shot if they're, for example, elderly and their immune system wanes a little bit, or people that have other illnesses that really affect their immune system."

The real issue is "vaccination fatigue", she says, with countries like the US and Germany hitting the 60% vaccinated rate across their populations, but the remaining 40% deciding to stay unvaccinated. 

"That's a serious problem going into the winter in the Northern hemisphere ... vaccination fatigue. I have a suspicion that there may be some lockdowns in the Northern hemisphere, but I think that will be temporary," Ogden says. 

"I don't think we're out of the woods just yet."

Drug discovery to change dramatically over the coming decade

We are at the start of an exciting convergence between molecular biology and computer science, Ogden says, which will help drug discovery to become cheaper and more efficient over the coming 10 years.

Over the past few decades, the tools that scientists use in the lab have become much more effective in drilling down into cells and understanding the pathology of diseases, she says. 

"But what that also meant is that we were generating a lot of data," Ogden says. 

"So 20 years ago we got the map of the human genome, then soon after we were able to develop something called next-generation sequencing, which makes reading the DNA code much easier and cheaper. And all of this data that sits somewhere has to be analysed." 

Similarly, there has been rapid innovation in computer technologies. Particularly in recent years, technologies like the Cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) have become household names. 

"You can now store and analyse data much easier, and it's cheaper. And that's what we are seeing in biotech today," she says. 

She points to Utah-based biotech Recursion Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: RXRX) as an example, which "essentially run automated labs".

"They run about a million experiments a week. And they look at cells, and they either genetically modify them or put certain drugs on them to change the way they look," Ogden says. 

Previously, these changes couldn't be seen with the naked eye, but now AI can spot the differences. Using these technologies, Recursion can analyse cellular networks at an enormous scale and predict the course of a disease to ultimately change its path, she says. 

"Those things are only possible because of automation, but also because we have the Cloud, we have machine learning and we have that cultural mix between biology and technology," Ogden says. 

"I believe that in the next decade, drug discovery will change dramatically, which basically means it will be cheaper, costs will come down (for patients) and we will also become much more efficient in screening new molecules. 

"There is a real change happening here, and we really want to be part of that."

Next-generation solutions for neurodegenerative diseases 

Another area of biotechnology where scientists are currently making strides is the molecular profiling of neurodegenerative diseases, Ogden says. 

"I always compare it to what happened in oncology," she says. 

"One of the things in cancer that has emerged over the last 10 years is immune-oncology, where we basically look at the molecular profile of the tumour, and then we're also defining how many immune cells are around it - is it a hot or cold tumour? What do we have to do to bring more of the immune system in to basically eat up this tumour? 

"And with Alzheimer's, we know that the immune system plays quite a critical role when the neurons are being destroyed. And so the question is, how can we define the immune system in our brain, which is slightly different?" 

Over the past five to 10 years, scientific attention in the US has shifted to focus on neurodegeneration. Centogene (NASDAQ: CNTG), in particular, has caught Ogden's eye. 

"They're essentially defining the genetic subsets of different neurodegenerative diseases," she says. 

By "phenotyping" patients, which Ogden explains as assessing their symptoms and how that correlates to their genetic makeup and that of their degenerative disease. 

"They have built this database that they're now using to find new drug targets, but also to work with drug developers to recruit patients globally much quicker because they are much more defined," she says. 

"So we're very excited by these areas because it really is something that is in its infancy. And so we're looking for other opportunities there. But it's not an easy area, but it is really, I think important because there aren't many options for patients." 

Gene editing and the potential of CRISPR

Another area of technology still in its infancy is gene editing, which has become a widely used tool within labs but faces a variety of regulatory obstacles as well as exorbitant prices that limit their use on humans and animals alike. 

"The tool is very exciting because it has made gene editing quite easy," Ogden says. 

"So when I was in the lab many years ago and you had to knock out a gene, it took you months, and it was very fiddly and very annoying. Now, you have this gene-editing tool, CRISPR, which is essentially an enzyme that comes in and it sits on top of this guide RNA... and then it does its cut.  

"It's quite easy to use, and it very quickly made its way into many labs to be used as a tool." 

Within this arena, Platinum invested in a company called Intellia Therapeutics (NASDAQ: NTLA), which it has since sold on valuation concerns. 

"They showed for the first time that if you inject this gene-editing machinery, using CRISPR and this guide RNA, they were able to edit out a gene," Ogden explains. 

"It showed that they can reduce the protein which is made from the gene by a lot... a lot more than people actually thought." 

Platinum is also invested in US-based LogicBio Therapeutics (NASDAQ: LOGC) within the gene-editing sector. 

While it remains an exciting tool to be used in the lab, Ogden believes we would have to work out the long-term effects of removing or adding genes before it is widely used in therapeutics. 

For those who are interested in learning more about CRISPR, there is a great four-part documentary on Netflix called Unnatural Selection. For those who like a gripping storyline with their daily dose of insight, Ogden recommends Biohackers, also on Netflix. 

Other opportunities that Ogden has identified 

Platinum also recently came on board as an institutional investor in biotech start-up HaemaLogiX (not listed), which is developing an antibody for multiple myeloma. 

"They can now scale up the production for clinical trials of their antibodies. So it's very exciting," Ogden says. 

"We've been speaking to them for at least five years to really understand where it's progressing." 

This isn't Platinum first foray into multiple myeloma, having invested in Genmab (CPH: GMAB) several years ago (which developed an antibody against the CD38 antigen from multiple myeloma. 

"People were initially a bit dubious about that, but this is one of the lead therapeutics today for multiple myeloma patients," Ogden says.  

"We see similar activity at HaemaLogiX, where this antibody actually has a much better safety profile and could really find its way into multiple myeloma maintenance. So it's very exciting for them to start getting into those trials."

Ogden has also "gone off the beaten track" and revisited the area of epigenomics, an area that was once "hot" but cooled down when advancements took longer than expected. 

"You've got your DNA code and there is a system overlaying that which regulates what genes get switched on and off. And how that's done is there are slight chemical modifications on your DNA that basically signal, 'don't switch this gene on,' and then when that chemical modification is taken away, that gene is then active," She explains. 

Within this field, she's recently added Omega Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OMGA) to the portfolio, which interestingly uses RNA technology to deliver a protein that can assist with the regulation of genes. 

How to identify the darlings from the duds

During her 18 years with Platinum, Ogden has learnt to never rush an investment decision when it comes to biotech. When share prices surge, you will often get another chance to invest at a more palatable price down the track. 

"I've learnt that there's always a second or third time that you can invest because there's always a stumble... or there's no catalyst. I think in the end, you really have to do your due diligence - you have to talk to customers, to people that actually use the technology or have worked with the company," Ogden says.

She's also not ashamed to admit that she taps into her network to see if her peers have met with a company and whether or not they are backing a stock. In this way, managers can cross-check and exchange information to decipher the darlings from the duds. 

Ogden references the currently topical Theranos, led by Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani, as an example.

"When you looked at who was invested in Theranos and who she recruited as investors, they're all respected in their own field, but not a lot of them were from molecular diagnostics - where we know there's some really good people in there," she explains. 

"To me, that's always a red flag that I look for." 

Selling, on the other hand, can be quite difficult, Ogden says. 

"A little while ago we had a company in the portfolio, Prothena Corporation (NASDAQ: PRTA), that basically had a setback a few years ago in its key lead antibody. It then regrouped, and now it's done phenomenally," she says. 

If you know the science is sound and the team is strong, it's better to rethink your thesis behind a company. If they really had a setback, and the thesis hasn't changed, you can add to your holding and stay with it, Ogden says. 

"We've sold out of some of our mRNA holdings, again, mainly because we get it brokered back to us how amazing mRNA is now," she says. 

"But that doesn't mean that we stop talking to a company or learning about it and we may come back later. We did that with RNA interference, with a company called Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY)." 

Ogden invested early on when Alnylam came to market, sold out, and invested again at a setback further down the line. 

"You never really go away... It's a bit more tricky to decide because you always have M&A. I've seen it many times where they all come good. I don't see as many bankruptcies in this space," she says. 

The biggest mistakes you can make when investing in biotech

In fact, selling too early is the biggest mistake investors can make when investing in biotech, Ogden says.

"I think most fund managers have never backed themselves fully. At least I don't," she says. 

"So that's one of the things I learn every year. You shouldn't be afraid if there is a setback. Because in the end, again, if the management is sound, if the approach is sound, they do come back." 

Another major mistake investors can make is being hesitant about new tools or therapies. 

"I go back to mRNA for us. We basically looked at that and then started investing in it five years ago, but everyone said to us, 'That has never worked. What are you talking about? This is just really not interesting,'" Ogden recalls. 

If you are going to invest in biotech, she recommends adopting an open mindset. 

"Don't be too closed to new ideas. Really embrace them and really think about what if the science is actually right. What would that mean?" Ogden adds. 
Source: supplied. 

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Platinum Investment Management Limited ABN 25 063 565 006, AFSL 221935 (“Platinum’), trading as Platinum Asset Management. This information is general in nature and does not take into account your specific needs or circumstances. You should consider your own financial position, objectives and requirements and seek professional financial advice before making any financial decisions. You should also read the funds’ product disclosure statement before making any decision to acquire units in the fund, a copy of which is available at (VIEW LINK). Commentary reflects Platinum’s views and beliefs at the time of preparation, which are subject to change without notice. Certain information contained herein constitutes "forward-looking statements". Due to various risks and uncertainties, actual events or results, may differ materially from those reflected or contemplated in such forward-looking statements and no undue reliance should be placed on those forward-looking statements. To the extent permitted by law, no liability is accepted by Platinum for any loss or damage as a result of any reliance on this information. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future returns. FUM is as at August 31, 2021. 

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Ally Selby
Content Editor
Livewire Markets

Ally Selby is a content editor at Livewire Markets, joining the team at the end of 2020. She loves all things investing, financial literacy and content creation, having previously worked for the likes of Financial Standard, Pedestrian Group, Your...

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