East Coast Life Sciences Roundup: Merck, Celgene, PTC, Cerulean

New Jersey life sciences companies grabbed the spotlight this week as they raised money, joined with partners, and made new hires. Merck’s research division will have a new leader as a former executive comes back from a long stint at the world’s largest biotechnology company. And a Cambridge, MA, company is in suspense as it waits for trial results that may lift its fortunes.

—Former Merck veteran executive Roger Perlmutter is returning to the Whitehouse Station, NJ-based pharmaceutical giant (NYSE: MRK) after more than a decade of experience in revamping the R&D pipeline at leading biotechnology company Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) of Thousand Oaks, CA. Merck said Thursday it has hired Perlmutter as an executive vice president and president of Merck Research Laboratories. In his new post, Perlmutter may get to realize a vision he had when he first worked for Merck—to help the big pharma company move beyond small molecule drugs and build a repertoire of biotechnology products.

—Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) is the second big East Coast company to team up with the small Seattle company Presage Biosciences, which aims to predict which cancer drug combinations would work best together. Presage will get $13 million up front plus possible milestone payments from Celgene. If Presage’s preclinical testing methods pan out, they could save drug developers a bundle on clinical trial costs. Only about one out of ten experimental cancer treatments entered into human trials manages to score an FDA approval. The first big company to sign a partnership agreement with Presage was Cambridge, MA-based Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Company last April.

PTC Therapeutics of South Plainfield, NJ says it has raised $60 million from investment funds and institutional investors to support a Phase 3 trial of its experimental drug ataluren in patients with a form of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The compound is designed to override the damaging effects of “nonsense mutations” in genes. The mutations halt the formation of essential proteins, whose absence can cause disease. PTC is also studying the drug candidate in nonsense mutation cystic fibrosis. The financing was led by Brookside Capital Partners Fund, L.P.

—In Cambridge, Cerulean Pharma is awaiting the results this month of a lung cancer trial that could reveal whether its proprietary nanoparticles make anti-tumor drugs work better by delivering them selectively to cancer cells. If the median survival of participants in Cerulean’s lung cancer trial turns out to be close to nine months, the company would be encouraged to launch the larger trial needed for FDA approval. A proof-of-concept result for the nanoparticle platform could also extend its potential use to other cancer types, and attract partnership offers. Celgene’s modified form of paclitaxel (Abraxane) is among the approved drugs that already use nanoparticles to target the destination of cancer drugs in the body.

—The Boston area’s thick ranks of interesting startups like Cerulean help peg it as perhaps the top biotechnology hotspot in the nation. But it depends on who’s keeping score, and how. Xconomy’s national biotechnology editor Luke Timmerman contests a report by real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle that names San Diego as the number two biotechnology cluster, ahead of San Francisco. But the dynamism of Boston’s biotech hub can’t be denied, Timmerman says. He’ll be interviewing top executives from Biogen Idec, Millennium/Takeda, Atlas Venture, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Third Rock Ventures, and other leaders at Xconomy’s life sciences event, titled “Boston Biotech Seizes the Momentum.” The one-day conference is on April 4, at Biogen Idec’s Building 8 in Cambridge, MA.

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