East Coast Life Sciences Roundup: Moderna, Inotek, Roche, & More

Xconomy Boston — 

Two pharmaceutical giants shook up the Tri-State area this week, while one of the Boston area’s most radical biotechs got another big vote of confidence. Those details and much more below:

—Cambridge, MA-based Moderna Therapeutics turned heads in the biotech world when it got a $240 million up front check from AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN) earlier this year. Now it’s got another believer in its messenger RNA drug technology—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has offered Moderna a grant worth as much as $24.6 million over the next five years to develop its platform to fight infectious diseases. Moderna, which still doesn’t have any drugs in human clinical trials, makes synthetic mRNA molecules that are supposed to coax the body into making its own antibodies. While Moderna could likely take itself public at this point, CEO Stephane Bancel told Xconomy’s National Biotech Editor Luke Timmerman that the company’s main goal at this point is to assure itself that its mRNA drugs are safe to use in humans.

— Lexington, MA-based Inotek Pharmaceuticals raised $21 million in equity and debt financing to push an experimental drug for glaucoma known as trabodenoson through a mid-stage clinical trial. Inotek, which has raised about $111 million since its inception, secured the cash just weeks after rival glaucoma drug developer Aerie Pharmaceuticals filed for an IPO. I spoke with Inotek chief scientific officer William McVicar about going head to head with Aerie, and where he thinks his company can fit into the crowded space for glaucoma treatments.

—Roche this week christened what it’s calling the Translational and Clinical Research Center, a new facility that is meant to serve as a hub for collaborations the drugmaker intends to forge with the various research institutions in Manhattan. Roche plans to officially move into the center, which is located at the West Tower of the Alexandria Center for Life Science on Manhattan’s East Side, on Jan. 2.

—Merck (NYSE: MRK), meanwhile, announced plans to cut 8,500 jobs as part of a sweeping R&D restructuring designed to save the company $2.5 billion annually by the end of 2015. The job cuts will end up reducing Merck’s 81,000 employee workforce by about 20 percent. Merck is also moving its headquarters from Whitehouse Station, NJ, to Kenilworth, NJ.

—Back in April I profiled New Enterprise Associates’ rare disease startup accelerator, Cambridge-based Cydan, when it was formed with the help of a $16 million investment from NEA, Pfizer Venture Investments and Alexandria Real Estate Equities. This week, Cydan added $10 million to that round, as new investors Lundbeckfond Ventures and Bay City Capital joined the accelerator’s venture syndicate. Lundbeckfond managing partner Mette Kirstine Agger and Bay City investment partner and managing director Carl Goldfischer joined Cydan’s board as part of the round.

—Just last week, Waltham, MA-based drug discovery startup X-Chem announced that AstraZeneca licensed three potential drug candidates coming from its drug discovery work. This week, X-Chem said that the two have expanded the partnership—it’s now a five-year pact instead of two year deal, and X-Chem will now conduct drug discovery on at least 10 disease targets identified by AstraZeneca per year for the life of the collaboration. X-Chem stands to get up to $26 million in milestone payments, as well as a potential royalty stream, for each program licensed by the drugmaker from the partnership.

—Newly founded, New York-based startup Loxo Oncology picked up a preclinical cancer drug from Boulder-based Array Biopharma (NASDAQ: ARRY) as part of a partnership deal in July, and this week it secured $33 million in Series A funding to help develop it. Founding investor Aisling Capital led the round, which also included two other new backers: OrbiMed Advisors, and another one that wasn’t disclosed. Loxo was formed in May by Aisling partner Josh Bilenker.

—Shares of Watertown, MA-based Psivida (NASDAQ: PSDV) jumped more than 30 percent this week after U.K. regulators reversed course and recommended its drug fluicinolone acetonide (Iluvien) as a treatment for diabetic macular edema, clearing it for reimbursement. Psivida is entitled to 20 percent of the net profits from sales of the drug, while partner Alimera Sciences (NASDAQ: ALIM) gets the remaining 80 percent. It’ll also get a $25 million payday if the FDA approves the drug—the agency is supposed to make a decision by Oct. 17.

—Three New York research groups—Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Rockefeller University, and Weill Cornell Medical College—have formed the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute with the help of a $15 million gift from Lewis and Ali Sanders and a $5 million gift from Howard and Abby Milstein. The non-profit institute, which will be located on the top floor of the Belfer Research Building at Weill Cornell, is designed to speed the translation of early-stage research at each institution into new drugs and diagnostics. The institute also announced a partnership with Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda. It will open in January.