East Coast Biotech Roundup: Acceleron, Seres, Sage, & More

Xconomy Boston — 

The megamerger resurfaced this week, as Dublin’s Shire, a rumored acquisition target on and off for years that has 1,500 employees in Lexington, MA, agreed to be bought by North Chicago, IL-based AbbVie in a $55 billion tax inversion deal. Biotech stocks, meanwhile, underwent a massive sell-off after Federal Chairwoman Janet Yellen called the sector out in front of Congress. There’s plenty more news in East Coast biotech, as you’ll see below.

—A little luck can go a long way in drug development, as John Knopf, the CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Acceleron Pharma (NASDAQ: XLRN) can attest to. Acceleron needed some good fortune on its side to find the right disease to target—beta-thalassemia—with its protein drug, sotatercept, which now sits on the cusp of Phase 3 trials. Several big hurdles remain for Acceleron, though, and a potential commercial battle with Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE) looms. I spoke with Knopf about the journey that’s given his company a shot to treat the crippling blood disorder.

—There’s been a lot of hoopla over the past few years about the potential of the microbiome—the trillions of bacteria, both good and bad, and other microorganisms that live in our bodies—to treat disease. This week, Cambridge-based Seres Health provided some real data on the potential for a microbiome-based therapy to treat a disease, and its CEO, Roger Pomerantz, told Xconomy’s Alex Lash that the company is now gearing up to go public. Seres reported that its lead product candidate, SER-109, has effectively cured 29 of 30 people with a recurring infection of the bacterium clostridium difficile (C. diff), in a Phase 1 study. What’s more, Seres is planning to start what could be a “pivotal” trial—the last required for filing for FDA approval— in December. It would be the first such study for a microbiome-based therapy.

—The New York City Economic Development Corp. doesn’t have a venture partner for its $100 million life science fund as of yet, but this week, it formally split the project into two separate pieces, announcing that it aims to put $40-$60 million of that total towards “non-therapeutics” startups—those developing medical devices, diagnostics, and other life sciences products. The NYCEDC is now effectively seeking at least two venture partners to match the funds it and others like Celgene, Eli Lilly, and GE Ventures, have put towards the initiative—one interested in therapeutics, and one that prefers investing in other parts of the sector.

—Janet Yellen managed to sink much of the biotech sector this past week, but not Cambridge-based Sage Therapeutics (NASDAQ: SAGE). Sage boosted the size and price range of its initial public offering, and then priced it at $18 per share, the top of that revised range. Sage raised $90 million before discounts due to underwriters and was poised to make its Nasdaq debut on Friday morning. Third Rock Ventures, which started Sage up in 2010, still held about 58.5 percent of the company before the IPO (Arch Ventures Partners owned 21.3 percent of Sage).

—The quarterly MoneyTree report was released this week, with a couple biotech notes. First, biotech ranked as the second largest sector for dollars invested, with $1.8 billion going into 122 deals. Second, Boston and Hayward, CA-based Intarcia Therapeutics brought in the fourth highest private round of the quarter when it raised $200 million in April.

—The FDA this week lifted the partial clinical hold on Lexington, MA-based Concert Pharmaceuticals’ (NASDAQ: CNCE) potential spasticity drug, CPT-354. The FDA’s hold, initiated in November, prevented Concert from giving patients in its Phase 1 trial more than a 6 milligram dose per day of CPT-354. Concert said that it has wrapped up the needed preclinical testing to prove it’s safe to bump up the dose, and will start giving patients in the study a 12 mg dose starting in September.

—Cambridge-based Genocea Biosciences (NASDAQ: GNCA) was one of the victims of the market sell-off this week. The vaccine developer pulled a planned offering of about 3.4 million shares, citing market conditions. Genocea had been hoping to raise about $50 million. The company said that even without the offering, however, it still has enough cash to take it through the end of 2015.

—Dublin and Waltham, MA-based Alkermes (NASDAQ: ALKS) this week began the first clinical trial for ALKS 8700, a prospective oral multiple sclerosis drug the company is pitching as a new and improved version of Biogen Idec’s (NASDAQ: BIIB) blockbuster dimethyl fumarate (Tecfidera). Alkermes will test the safety and tolerability of a number of formulations of ALKS 8700 in 125 healthy volunteers. You can read more about the Alkermes drug in a story I wrote about the company last year.

—Another Merck executive involved with developing company’s promising cancer immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab has left the company for a new gig. Luciano Rossetti, Merck’s senior vice president of late-stage development, has decided to become the executive vice president and global head of R&D the German Merck. Rossetti will work out of Billerica, MA, at one of the company’s global R&D hubs. He’ll start on July 21. Recently, both Roger Pomerantz and Richard Murray left the U.S. Merck to run Boston startups: Seres Health (Pomerantz) and Jounce Therapeutics (Murray).

—Roseland, NJ-based digital health startup Epion Health closed a $4.5 million Series A round led by Deerfield Management. Epion has developed a software-as-a-service tool that enables patients to check into healthcare facilities with an iPad. Epion recently cut a deal with Athenahealth to get its service utilized in the company’s network of roughly 52,000 healthcare providers.