East Coast Biotech Roundup: Collins, Disruptors, Biogen, & More

Xconomy Boston — 

The drug pricing debate continues to dominate media headlines. Biotech IPOs have gotten a bit tougher to pull off, and according to this report from Bloomberg, for the first time in awhile there are only a few lined up. Long way of saying, biotech really needs some good news to regain the momentum that propelled it to starry heights over the last few years, which makes for a critical next few months in life sciences. Which companies, or drugs, will help turn the tide? Something to ponder as you make your way through this week’s East Coast stories.

—MIT professor James Collins is one of the pioneers of synthetic biology. He’s also a Rhodes scholar, the founder of a group of startups, and as I learned this week, the failed one-time proprietor of a dance club for kids. I spoke with Collins about his choice to pursue academia, the state of synthetic biology, and how scientists should—and shouldn’t—deal with failure.

—Last week Xconomy’s held its latest biotech event, “Boston’s Life Science Disruptors,” which featured an inside look at three local life sciences companies—Foundation Medicine (NASDAQ: FMI), Synlogic, and Seres Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MCRB). You can read my recap of the event here, and check out some of the photos here.

—Cambridge, MA-based Genocea Biosciences (NASDAQ: GNCA) said its experimental genital herpes vaccine, GEN-003, succeeded in its latest test—a six-month follow-up of patients who’d been given a three-shot regimen of the vaccine in a Phase 2 trial. Genocea will follow these patients for six more months to see how long the effects of its vaccine last, and aims to meet with the FDA next year to discuss the design of a big late-stage trial. Shares of Genocea initially climbed as much as 30 percent before settling down to a roughly 4 percent gain on the news.

—Cambridge-based Opsonix launched this week with an $8 million round of funding, becoming the second startup—along with Emulate—to be spun out of the labs of Wyss Institute founding director Donald Ingber in the last two years. Opsonix has developed a new way to clear dangerous infections from the blood by harnessing the binding power of opsonins, a type of immune cell. Baxter Ventures led the funding, teaming with Swiss billionaire and Wyss founder Hansjorg Wyss.

—Cambridge-based Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) said Friday that Tony Kinglsey, its head commercial executive, is leaving the company. John Cox, who heads Biogen’s pharmaceutical operations, is taking his place on an interim basis. The news comes amidst a tough time for Biogen, which has seen its share price slide more than 30 percent over the past few months. Kingsley is the second top Biogen executive to leave over that time—former R&D chief Doug Williams left to run a (still unnamed) cancer startup in July.

—If you didn’t catch it, here’s Stewart Lyman’s detailed take on the drug pricing hubbub, including an analysis of the pricing strategies of some of the companies that the Biotechnology Industry Organization has either let in, or not. One of Lyman’s points: Turing Pharmaceuticals was recently kicked out of BIO after a 50-fold drug price increase, while other companies who have instituted a 30-plus fold increase are still members.

—More bad news from Boston-based Verastem (NASDAQ: VSTM), which announced plans to slash half of its roughly 40-person workforce just a week after its lead drug failed a clinical trial in mesothelioma. Verastem expects to save about $5 million from the job cuts.

—Lexington, MA-based Concert Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CNCE) got an $8 million milestone payment from Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) after wrapping up a Phase 1 trial of CTP-730, a deuterium-modified version of Celgene’s oral arthritis drug, apremilast (Otezla). Celgene is responsible for all further development costs of CTP-730 as part of the 2013 partnership between the two companies.

—Waltham, MA- and Dublin-based Alkermes (NASDAQ: ALKS) won FDA approval of aripiprazole lauroxil (Aristada), a once-monthly or once every six-week treatment for schizophrenia.  Alkermes’ drug is a long-lasting version of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s blockbuster schizophrenia drug aripiprazole (Abilify). The drug will cost about $1,500 a month, according to the Boston Globe.

—Cambridge-based Quartet Medicine closed out its Series A round, adding just over $6 million in new cash to the $17 million it previously disclosed for a $23.25 million total haul. Remedetix Ventures and two unnamed Shanghai-based investors joined Quartet’s syndicate as part of the funding, and Remedetix CEO John Creecy and former Zalicus CEO Mark Corrigan were named to Quartet’s board. I profiled Quartet, an Atlas Venture-incubated startup, last year.

—The FDA placed a clinical hold on Advaxis’ (NASDAQ: ADXS) experimental cancer treatment, axalimogene filolisbac (formerly ADXS-HPV), impacting four clinical trials that are currently underway. A cervical cancer patient who took Advaxis’ drug died in August. While a trial investigator ruled that the death was due to disease progression, the FDA wants more information to ensure Advaxis’s treatment wasn’t to blame.

—Fidelity Biosciences and Devonshire Investors—the biotech and tech venture funds of Fidelity—will now operate under one name, F-Prime Capital.