East Coast Biotech Roundup: Accelerate LI, ASCO, Akebia, & More

Xconomy Boston — 

Fresh off Memorial Day barbecues, the life sciences world descended on Chicago last week for the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting. But it was quickly back to the grind afterward, with deals, IPO news, and much more filling up the headlines on the East Coast.

—After a few years fine-tuning its investment strategy, Accelerate Long Island has seeded its first group of startups. The nonprofit organization and the Long Island Emerging Technologies Fund announced plans to put $500,000 into five Long Island, NY-based biotech and cleantech startups: Goddard Labs, Green Sulfcrete, PolyNova, SynchroPET, and Traverse Biosciences. I spoke with Accelerate LI executive director Mark Lesko about the investments, and the initiative’s plan to raise a new, bigger fund by the end of the year.

—ASCO has once again come and gone, and as Alex Lash and I wrote Friday, it was a meeting for immuno-oncology position-jockeying among members of Big Pharma. Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Roche/Genentech and others strutted out the latest data on their cancer checkpoint inhibitors, and AstraZeneca ran a full-court press to show it made the right call rejecting a $117 billion bid from Pfizer. Biotechs? Far less newsy, though there were a few big stock winners among East Coast biotechs. You can read more in our wrapup.

—Biotechs all hit a strategic fork in the road at some point: to sell, or go public? Cambridge, MA-based Akebia Therapeutics (NASDAQ: AKBA) chose the latter, and along with it, a high-stakes footrace with a group of competitors to create an oral anemia drug. Akebia CEO John Butler told me about the thinking behind the decision, as well as Akebia’s strategy to stand out in a crowded field.

—Cambridge-based Idenix Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: MRK) seemed like an afterthought in the battle for new-wave hepatitis C treatments, but not to Merck, which agreed to pay $3.85 billion in cash to buy the company on Monday. Merck is paying $24.50 per share for Idenix, or more than three times what Idenix traded for before the deal. It’s a stunning outcome for Idenix, which saw the FDA place clinical holds on two of its drugs less than two years ago, causing the company to shift its strategy and focus on some different drug prospects.

—Bedminster, NJ-based NPS Pharmaceuticals (NASDSAQ: NPSP) found itself right in the crosshairs of biotech buyout mania this past week after reports surfaced that Shire (NYSE: SHPG) was preparing a bid for the company, and was amassing a $5 billion credit line to fund it. NPS tried to shoot down the rumors with a regulatory filing claiming it has had no contact with Shire, but as investor Brad Loncar wrote recently, this was after CEO Francois Nader had already addressed the topic hours earlier in a conference room—meaning attendees got a heads up on market-moving information. This, Loncar wrote, shows why the format of the “breakout room”—a private Q&A that conference attendees can have with company executives—should be changed.

—Persistence has paid off for Cambridge-based Radius Health (NASDAQ: RDUS), albeit at a discount. After twice either withdrawing or postponing an IPO, Radius got a deal done last week, pricing 6.5 million shares at $8 apiece, raising $52 million before discounts due to underwriters. Still, Radius had aimed to sell 5 million shares at $14 to $16 apiece—as much as $80 million—before postponing its IPO in early May due to “market conditions.” Radius closed its first trading day on the Nasdaq at $8.01.

—Flagship Ventures’ microbiome startup, Seres Health, made a few strategic moves over the past week. First, Cambridge-based Seres hired former Merck executive Roger Pomerantz as its CEO, replacing Flagship’s David Berry. Then, Seres closed a $10 million Series B round to help develop its microbiome-based therapy, SER-109. Existing investors Flagship and Enso Ventures led the round, which also included participation from new backers like the Mayo Clinic, Alexandria Venture Investments, and other unspecified private investors. Seres is also teaming with the Mayo Clinic to help identify diseases for which a microbiome therapy might make a big impact. Seres is already testing SER-109 against the bacterial infection Clostridium difficile.

—Cambridge-based obesity drug startup Zafgen inched closer to the Nasdaq this past week, setting a potential price range for its pending IPO. Zafgen hopes to sell 5 million shares at between $14 and $16 apiece to help gear up mid- and late-stage trials for its fat-burning drug candidate, beloranib. It would trade on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol “ZFGN.”

—Waltham, MA-based Syndax Pharmaceuticals also set a range for its offering, outlining plans to sell 4.3 million shares at between $13 and $15 apiece. Syndax would use the cash to start a big Phase 3 trial for experimental cancer drug entinostat, which it wants to position as an adjunct to hormone therapy for patients with breast cancer.

—Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX) put out some data this week, just not the data investors have been anxiously awaiting for. Vertex announced proof-of-concept data from a small Phase 2 trial of cystic fibrosis drug ivacaftor (Kalydeco) in people with a so-called residual function mutation, another group of patients Vertex is hoping to treat with its drug. Investors, of course, are waiting for the outcomes of the two big Phase 3 trials called “Traffic” and “Transport,” which could open up Vertex’s drug to 30,000 CF patients worldwide, representing billions of dollars in potential sales for the company.

—Cambridge-based Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB) won FDA approval of Eloctate, a recombinant fusion protein drug for people with hemophilia A, and plans to begin selling it in the U.S. in July. The FDA cleared Biogen’s hemophilia B drug, Alprolix, earlier this year. Consensus analyst estimates have both drugs generating about $104 million in U.S. sales for Biogen in 2014 and $340 million in 2015.