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East Coast Biotech Roundup: Pre-J.P. Morgan Preening Edition

Xconomy Boston — 

It’s here again: J.P. Morgan week. Over the next few days, most everyone in healthcare will head to San Francisco for the industry’s biggest annual conference (a blessing for us East Coasters, who get a reprieve from the sub-zero wind chills).

Typically there’s a big deal or two preceding the conference. This year? A stampede of news from companies trying to grab the limelight before the festivities begin (or, on the other hand, get the bad news out of the way). Without further ado, let’s get right to it:

—Cambridge, MA-based Moderna Therapeutics on Monday grabbed a record $450 million private financing round with the help of “crossover” investors that typically invest in public companies. But nonetheless, company officials told me this week Moderna has no plans to hold an initial public offering anytime soon. A few days later, it formed Valera, its second incubated startup, which will focus on infectious diseases.

—Cambridge-based Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB) released long-awaited top-line data from a Phase 2 study of what’s known as “anti-LINGO-1,” a drug that’s being very closely watched because of its goal not just to slow the progression of the nerve damage that characterizes multiple sclerosis—but reverse it. (The drug’s name refers to the cellular target, lingo-1, it’s meant to block). The results come from a small study of patients with acute optic neuritis, typically the first sign of MS.

Biogen says it hit its main goal in the trial, but the results were decidedly mixed. The drug had no impact on key secondary measures, like an ability to improve the thickness of nerves in the eye. Shares of Biogen shot up early, as expectations were low for anti-LINGO-1, but the company ended the day down roughly 1 percent as investors digested the data. A Phase 2 study of the drug in MS patients is expected to produce data next year.

—Watertown, MA-based Blend Therapeutics raised $21 million in debt and equity financing to pursue its new strategy—making mini-smart bombs for cancer it’s calling “Pentarins.” I spoke with co-founder Omid Farokhzad about the strategy, a pivot from Blend’s original plan when it was founded a few years ago.

—Dublin and Waltham, MA-based Alkermes (NASDAQ: ALKS) continued its transformation from a drug delivery specialist to a drug developer this week, producing positive results on two separate studies of drug candidates for schizophrenia (ALKS 3831) and major depressive disorder (ALKS 5461). Shares jumped around 10 percent on the news.

—Cambridge-based Zafgen (NASDASQ: ZFGN) reported good news from its third Phase 2 study of beloranib, this time in patients with obesity associated with injury to the hypothalamus. Shares of Zafgen have since surged about 25 percent.

—Cambridge-based Sage Therapeutics (NASDAQ: SAGE) provided the latest interim update from an early-stage study testing its drug for super refractory status epilepticus, a rare, life-threatening form of epilepsy. Response rates to the drug, SAGE-547, are still north of 70 percent now with 20 patients enrolled. You can read more about the trial in a story I wrote in November, when 12 patients were enrolled.

—Cambridge-based Surface Oncology launched this week with a $35 million Series A led by Atlas Venture, Fidelity Biosciences, New Enterprise Associates, and Lilly Ventures. The company intends to develop cancer immunotherapies by targeting cells that play various roles in the tumor microenvironment, hopefully to help the immune system better recognize tumors. You can read more about the startup in this post from Atlas partner Bruce Booth.

—We rounded up some of the other local funding announcements, such as the $65 million corralled by Cambridge microbiome drug developer Seres Health, in this post.

—Lexington, MA-based Agenus (NASDAQ: AGEN) is teaming up with Incyte (NASDAQ: INCY) to develop various checkpoint-inhibiting antibodies for cancer. Incyte is paying Agenus $25 million in cash and buying $35 million in stock up front; Agenus could get another $350 million in milestones down the road, plus additional payouts tied to royalties.

—Waltham-based Syndax Pharmaceuticals, which postponed its IPO a few months back, cut a licensing deal this week for its prospective cancer drug, entinostat. Japan-based Kyowa Hakko Kirin paid $25 million up front and potentially $100 million overall for rights to sell the drug in Japan and Korea should it eventually win regulatory approval.

—Boston-based PureTech Ventures added another $50 million in funding to the $57 million it raised a few months ago to back its various operating subsidiaries. I profiled PureTech’s previous raise, and its unorthodox structure, in October.

—Cambridge-based startup Intellia Therapeutics cut a deal with Novartis (NYSE: NVS) this week that marries two of the hottest fields in biotech—gene editing tools known as CRISPR/Cas9, and a cancer immunotherapy technique called chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, or CART.

—Cambridge-based Infinity Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: INFI) found this week that its prospective blood cancer drug, duvelisib, doesn’t have a future as a rheumatoid arthritis treatment. Duvelisib, a PI3 kinase inhibitor, failed a Phase 2 study for the autoimmune disorder. Infinity will turn all of its attention to developing the drug in various blood cancers, the focus of the big deal it cut in September with AbbVie.

—Cambridge-based orphan drug startup accelerator Cydan launched its first company this week, an entity called Vtesse. The new startup was formed with a $25 million round from Cydan’s backers, among them New Enterprise Associates, Pfizer Venture Investments, and Alexandria Venture Investments. Vtesse, which will be based in Gaithersburg, MD, is developing a drug for a rare disorder known as Niemann-Pick Disease Type C.

—Cambridge-based Aveo Oncology (NASDAQ: AVEO) announced its latest restructuring in the wake of 2013’s disastrous advisory panel on cancer drug tivozanib. Michael Bailey was named its new CEO, taking over for Tuan Ha-Ngoc, who will slide in as chairman. The company is also axing two thirds of its 60-person workforce.

—Antibiotics developer Cempra (NASDAQ: CEMP) launched a $120.6 million stock offering to fund further development of its lead drug, a potential treatment for community-acquired bacterial pneumonia called solithromycin. The Chapel Hill, NC, company’s offering followed positive results from a Phase 3 trial.

Frank Vinluan contributed to this report