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East Coast Biotech Roundup: Foundation, Biogen, Moderna, & Lots More

Xconomy Boston — 

Well, the circus (the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference) is over. After a few days running around in sunny Union Square in San Francisco, it’s back to reality for us East Coasters—three more months of thick coats and blustery wind. Alex Lash and I will be emptying the notebook from the conference in the weeks and months to come, with an appetizer from some of our discussions coming up later today. But until then, here are some of the big local stories to emerge amidst the J.P. Morgan chaos.

—Shire kicked off the festivities this weekend with the conference’s biggest buyout, cinching a long-expected deal to acquire Bedminster, NJ-based NPS Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: NPSP) for $46 a share, or $5.2 billion. The deal ends a more than two-decade long journey for NPS, which started out investigating the therapeutic use of spider venom back in the 80s before a series of twists and turns led it to rare diseases.

—Foundation Medicine (NASDAQ: FMI) cut a broad-ranging deal with Roche this week in which the pharmaceutical powerhouse is paying more than $1 billion in cash for a majority stake in the Cambridge-based company and promising more dollars for R&D. It’s a major gamble—and validation—of the value of broad-based molecular profiling. And it also brings to mind a previous deal Roche put together with Genentech that eventually led to a buyout. I took an in-depth look at the deal, and the questions (and possibilities) facing Foundation.

—Cambridge-based Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB) made a deal of its own just before the conference. It bought U.K.-based Convergence Pharmaceuticals, and its developmental neuropathic pain drugs, for $200 million up front, and potentially as much as $675 million overall. VC firms Apposite Capital, New Leaf Venture Partners, and SV Life Sciences started up Convergence in 2010 by scooping up some neurology assets from GlaxoSmithKline and moving them forward. The result is a group of drugs that modulate ion channels—a protein membrane that controls the flow of charged molecules in and out of cells. Convergence’s lead drug is CNV1014802, which just completed a phase 2 trial in a rare, chronic disease called trigeminal neuralgia characterized by debilitating facial pain. It’s a small molecule drug that blocks an ion channel called Nav 1.7.

—Cambridge-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY) presented preliminary Phase 1 data for a subcutaneous RNA interference drug it’s developing for hemophilia called ALN-AT3.

—The new PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck are already approved and effective melanoma therapies, but now it appears they’re on their way to changing the way lung cancer is treated as well. A data monitoring committee told Bristol to stop a Phase 3 trial of its PD-1 blocker nivolumab (Opdivo) for a good reason. The study met its main goal—extending lung cancer patients’ lives, compared to chemo drug docetaxel—earlier than expected. Merck, meanwhile, has filed papers with the FDA to get its own PD-1 blocker, pembrolizumab (Keytruda), approved in lung cancer (and, separately, joined with Eli Lilly to plan some trials combining pembrolizumab with some of Lilly’s oncology drugs).

—Cambridge-based Mersana Therapeutics expanded the existing deal it signed with Takeda last year. Under the new deal, Mersana could get up to $300 million in additional up front and future payments tied to the success of the antibody-drug conjugates—“smart bomb” drugs that chemically link an antibody to a toxin—that come out of the alliance. Takeda has already agreed to license the first drug to emerge from the partnership. The two first began working together in April 2014; Mersana got an undisclosed payment up front. Mersana develops ADCs with what it calls “Fleximer” technology; sugar-derived polymers to deliver treatments to cells.

—Cambridge-based Neurophage added $10 million more to its Series D round, which now totals $27 million, to get its lead drug, NPT-088, into its first clinical trial, for Alzheimer’s, by the end of the year. The cash came from new investors, though Neurophage didn’t disclose who they were. Neurophage engineers fusion protein drugs that are supposed to hit several types of misfolded proteins simultaneously. I profiled the approach last year.

—Another week, more cash for Moderna Therapeutics. Fresh off its $450 million raise, Moderna inked a deal with Merck to develop messenger RNA therapies for infectious diseases. Merck took a $50 million equity stake in Moderna as part of the pact.

—Johnson & Johnson broadened its relationship with PureTech Venture’s microbiome startup, Vedanta Biosciences this week. J&J paid an undisclosed fee and promised potentially as much as $241 million to Vedanta overall for the rights to Vedanta’s experimental microbiome therapy, VE-202. The two parties aren’t saying how long it’ll be until the therapy begins clinical trials, however, as Alex Lash reports.

—Separately, J&J also agreed to pay Swiss biotech AC Immune up to $509 million as part of a deal to develop a vaccine that stimulates an immune response against tau, a protein implicated in the tangles and plaques that build up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. As part of the deal, J&J will take on the development of ACI-35, a vaccine candidate in Phase 1b testing.

—Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) exercised its option to grab the international rights to Agios Pharmaceuticals’s (NASDAQ: AGIO) AG-120, one of the cancer metabolism drugs the Cambridge company is developing that has shown some encouraging results in early studies. Agios holds U.S. rights to the drug; it could also get up to $120 million in milestones from Celgene should AG-120 continue to progress, and royalties on sales internationally. The drug is part of the broad collaboration Agios formed with Celgene in 2010.

—Cambridge-based Lysosomal Therapeutics, the startup founded by Kees Been with the help of Atlas Venture and former Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer last year to go after therapies for Parkinson’s and Gaucher Disease, is in the midst of raising a Series A round that could close this month, Alex Lash reports.

—Boston-based Ziopharm (NASDAQ: ZIOP) became the latest biotech to add CAR-T (a cellular immunotherapy taking the cancer treatment world by storm) to its ledger. The company and development partner Intrexon (NASDAQ: XON) signed a licensing deal to develop a CAR-T technology created at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. That technology supposedly uses a DNA-plasmid based method to genetically reprogram a patient’s T cells, rather than a virus. MD Anderson is getting as much as $100 million out of the deal: $50 million in Ziopharm and Intrexon stock, and another $15 million to $20 million each year for the next three years for R&D. Ziopharm and Intrexon aim to get as many as five CAR-T candidates into clinical trials this year through the deal.

—As we wrote recently, Watertown, MA-based Enanta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ENTA) pocketed $75 million when Viekira Pak—AbbVie’s hepatitis C regimen, which includes a drug Enanta helped develop—won FDA approval. So what’s it doing with some of that cash? Apparently, as FierceBiotech reported, diving into the increasingly competitive market for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH therapies. Intercept Pharmaceuticals burst onto the scene last year with promising data for a NASH drug, and others have since joined the fray. Now you can add Enanta, whose program is in the early stages of development.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Ruth L via Creative Commons