East Coast Biotech Roundup: Infinity, Merck, Voyager, Ebola, & More

Xconomy Boston — 

There are always surprises—both good and bad—in a volatile sector like biotech. A big deal can seemingly come out of nowhere, for instance, and send a company’s stock flying. That was the top story in East Coast biotech this week, but we’ve got all the other tidbits you might have missed, including a few additional share movers, below:

—Cambridge, MA-based Infinity Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: INFI) has seen its share of ups and downs trying to prove that its blood cancer drug, duvelisib, can stand out in a crowded field. But this week Infinity got a big stamp of validation from pharma giant AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV), which agreed to pay $275 million up front, and potentially as much as $805 million overall, to gain rights to Infinity’s drug. Infinity and AbbVie will share rights to and profits from any duvelisib sales in the U.S., while AbbVie has rights to the drug outside the U.S. (with Infinity getting royalties ranging from 23.5 percent to 30.5 percent). Shares of Infinity soared more than 40 percent on the news.

—Whitehouse Station, NJ-based Merck (NYSE: MRK) this week became the first company to win U.S. approval of a so-called PD-1 inhibitor—a highly anticipated new class of cancer drugs that harness the power of the immune system—beating out a rival treatment by Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY). The FDA approved Merck’s pembrolizumab (Keytruda) as a treatment for patients with advanced melanoma who are no longer responding to other drugs. The drug will cost $12,500 per month, adding up to $150,000 per patient for a year of treatment (the median time melanoma patients were treated with Merck’s drug in clinical trials was about 6.2 months, which would cost $77,500).

—Third Rock Ventures has gone in-house to name a full-time CEO for its latest gene therapy startup, Cambridge, MA-based Voyager Therapeutics. Steven Paul, a venture partner and senior advisor at the firm—and Eli Lilly’s former R&D chief—has taken over as the CEO of Voyager, which aims to use gene therapy to treat rare neurological diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Friedreich’s Ataxia. Paul helped found another one of Third Rock’s startups, Sage Therapeutics (NASDAQ: SAGE), and has overseen development of blockbuster central nervous system disorder drugs like olanzapine (Zyprexa) and duloxetine (Cymbalta).

—New Brunswick, NJ-based Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) has become the latest company to ramp up development of an ebola vaccine in response to the big outbreak that has killed thousands in West Africa. The potential treatment is a combination vaccine with components from J&J subsidiary Crucell and Danish biotech Bavarian Nordic. J&J said that with the help of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, it’ll begin human trials of the vaccine early next year.

—Lexington, MA-based iSpecimen has raised $8 million in Series B funding from new investor OneBlood, a non-profit organization, and a group of other existing private backers that the startup didn’t name. iSpecimen said it will use the cash to grow its network of healthcare partners and scale up. The company works as a middleman of sorts, helping researchers get the specific human specimens they need for their work more quickly and cheaply than they otherwise would. iSpecimen does this by partnering with various healthcare providers and getting access to their specimens and patient data, which it then sifts through with an in-house technology to match that data with the needs of researchers.

—Shares of Watertown, MA-based Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: TTPH) climbed more than 15 percent this week after the antibiotics developer released positive results from the early portion of a Phase 3 study testing its lead drug, eravacycline, in patients with complicated urinary tract infections (cUTI). Tetraphase said the results are good enough to move eravacycline into the second portion of its two-part Phase 3 trial, which will begin early in the fourth quarter. Tetraphase is testing both oral and intravenous forms of eravacycline in the study.

—Burlington, MA-based Flexion Therapeutics (NASDAQ: FLXN) also saw its shares jump this week after the company revealed that the development timeline for its long-lasting form of the steroid triamcinolone (FX006) has sped up. Flexion said that the FDA will treat its ongoing Phase 2b study as one of the two efficacy studies needed for approval. As a result, Flexion will begin a late-stage trial later this year, won’t run an additional safety study as it had planned, and believes that it can complete Phase 3 development by the end of 2015, about a year earlier than it expected. Shares climbed just over 9 percent on the news.

—Boston-based startup Allegro Diagnostics was snapped up this week by South San Francisco’s Veracyte (NASDAQ: VCYT) in a $21 million cash and stock deal. Veracyte agreed to pay $7.8 million in cash and hand Allegro shareholders $13.2 million in Veracyte common stock for the rights to the company, which has developed a genetic test for lung cancer that is supposed to boost the accuracy of bronchoscopies (in which a tube is placed down a patient’s nose or throat to look for cancerous cells). Veracyte plans to begin selling Allegro’s test next year. Allegro’s backers include Kodiak Venture Partners, Catalyst Health Ventures, and Boston University.