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5 Biotech Storylines to Watch in Boston

Xconomy Boston — 

It almost goes without saying that the Boston biotech scene is rapidly evolving—perhaps as fast as any industry we write about here at Xconomy. So the editors and I thought it would be useful to highlight five of the most important storylines that we have been and will continue to follow in New England.

1. Big Pharma Influence

French drug giant Sanofi-Aventis’s (NYSE: SNY) hostile bid to acquire Cambridge, MA-based biotech powerhouse Genzyme (NASDAQ: GENZ) is the big news on this front. Yet other large drug companies—including Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE)—have also been buying up Boston biotech properties. These deals are evidence of all the great science under development here, but they will also inevitably change the face of the biotech community. We’ll be following up on what this means for entrepreneurs, venture investors, and scientists in the Hub.

2. Biotech Getting Personal

No, this is not about corporate raider Carl Icahn’s beefs with some Boston-area biotech CEOs in recent years. Rather, this is about the ongoing excitement surrounding the field of personalized medicine—in Boston and beyond. Genetic sequencing has become cheaper, faster, and more accurate. Foundation Medicine and Good Start Genetics are just two of the recent local startups to take advantage of next-generation sequencing tools to help guide the treatment of patients based on their genetics. There has also been intense interest in advances in the sequencing tools themselves, as we saw with the $375 million sale of Guilford, CT-based Ion Torrent Systems to Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE) in August.

3. Future of Gene-Silencing Drugs

Over much of the last decade, investors swooned over the promise of RNA interference drugs to silence disease-causing genes and become valuable new class of medicines for touch-to-treat illness such as cancers and neurological disorders. But the trouble has been figuring out how to deliver the gene-silencing drugs to cells deep in the body—and I mean deeper than the liver. Swiss drug giant Novartis is wrapping up its five-year collaboration with Cambridge-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, a leading developer of RNA interference drugs, prompting Alnylam to announce a 25-30 percent reduction in its work force last month. The field might need a breakthrough in drug-delivery technology to boost confidence that RNA interference will live up to its promise.

4. More Changes at Biogen Idec

Weston, MA-based Biogen Idec, one of the world’s largest makers of multiple sclerosis drugs, has a new CEO, George Scangos, who might shake things up at the company. When he took the job in June, he said that he would review the firm’s R&D strategy and would look to make changes. The new boss hasn’t provided details on those changes yet, but he told the Boston Globe last week that he plans to unveil a new operating blueprint by the end of the year. As we reported on July 1, Scangos has indicated that his changes could mean that certain R&D programs get shed from the pipeline. We’ll be watching for what the expected changes will mean for Massachusetts’s second-largest biotech firm.

5. Campaign Against Cancer

My colleague Luke did a great job of summing up this ever-unfolding story in his recent post about Xconomy’s next biotech forum called Boston’s War on Cancer. With more than half a million Americans dying from cancer every year, many Boston-area biotech firms have a lot riding on the success of their experimental cancer drugs. For instance, Cambridge-based Ariad Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:ARIA) is expected to report data later this year from its pivotal study of a drug called ridaforolimus for treating certain forms of soft tissue and bone cancer. So stay tuned…