East Coast Biotech Roundup: Cancer Vaccines, Biogen, LabCentral & More

Xconomy Boston — 

There was a loud cheer in New York this week—originating from Queens, to be exact—and it had nothing to do with biotech. The New York Mets, for many years Big Apple baseball’s second-class citizens, stormed through the Chicago Cubs in a four-game demolition and are now headed to the Fall Classic for the first time since 2000 (a World Series most Met fans would like to forget).

For Met fans who double as biotech traders—I’m assuming Mr. and Mrs. Met (pictured above) aren’t among them—it was probably a nice distraction from the continued life sciences carnage on Wall Street. The good news? That distraction is going to continue for a few more weeks, because the World Series kicks off next Tuesday.

In the meantime, your East Coast headlines are below.

—Gritstone Oncology emerged with a $102 million Series A round this week. While the cancer vaccine startup is based in the Bay Area, CEO Andrew Allen said that some of its informatics and sequencing work will take place in Cambridge, MA—the home of rival Neon Therapeutics, which launched with a $55 million round earlier this month.

—Cambridge is also home to a third player in the emerging cancer vaccines competition: Caperna, the latest startup created by Moderna Therapeutics. Caperna is developing messenger RNA cancer vaccines meant to work similarly to the “neoantigen” vaccines Gritstone and Neon are working on. Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel told me this week that Caperna’s pitch is quicker acting vaccines that trigger a bigger immune response. My story, which you can read here, also has updates on Moderna’s status.

—Alex Lash reported this week that the backers of LabCentral and Cambridge BioLabs, two well-known Cambridge-based biotech incubators, are on the verge of closing a $150 million fund called BioInnovation Capital. The fund is expected to invest in 15 or more biotech startups, though not just the ones that are tenants LabCentral or Cambridge BioLabs.  The move is part of a broad strategy to foster biotech startups across the country—the LabCentral group is also building new incubators in San Diego and Raleigh-Durham, NC.

— Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) said this week it would cut its 8,000-person workforce by about 11 percent and shelve a number of programs, among them preclinical efforts in fibrosis and immunology. The restructuring is part of a bid by Biogen to funnel its resources towards its advancing, yet risky drug candidates for Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and spinal muscular atrophy. A spokesperson confirmed to Xconomy that about 400 of the job cuts will be in Massachusetts, with another 130 coming in Research Triangle Park, NC, and the rest overseas.

—Boston-based Zafgen (NASDAQ: ZFGN) said this week that the Prader-Willi Syndrome patient on its obesity drug, beloranib, who died in a Phase 3 study suffered a pulmonary embolism—a blood clot in the lung. It’s still unclear whether beloranib was responsible, but Zafgen said that it’s going to close the randomized portion of its ongoing Prader-Willi and severe obesity trials early. The company will, however, continue a six month open-label extension to the Prader-Willi study, and conduct an unblinded follow-up to that study afterwards.

—The number of gene therapy companies on the Nasdaq keeps growing. This week, Dimension Therapeutics (NASDAQ: DMTX) made its debut, raising $71.5 million in an IPO and becoming at least the eighth gene therapy company to go public since 2013. A ninth, Voyager Therapeutics, could soon follow. Dimension priced its offering at a discount, however, much like several other biotechs to attempt to go public of late.

—In other gene therapy news, Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE) said that the first patient with beta-thalassemia—a crippling blood disease that can lead to anemia—treated with an earlier version of its gene therapy technology back in 2007 recently required two blood transfusions. The patient had gone seven years without needing one. Bluebird made clear the vector technology it uses now for its gene therapy is far superior—meaning, presumably, treatment should last longer. The next update on Bluebird’s gene therapies for beta-thalassemia and sickle cell disease will come at the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting in December.

—Shares of Genocea Biosciences (NASDAQ: GNCA) sank to all-time lows this week after the company disclosed that an experimental vaccine for pneumococcus failed a mid-stage trial. Genocea is suspending its work on the program and will now put its resources behind its genital herpes vaccine, which could begin Phase 3 testing next year.

—Bay Area cancer drug powerhouse Genentech inked a deal with Cambridge-based Nimbus Therapeutics to discover and develop small molecule drugs that block a target known as interleukin-1 receptor kinase 4. Nimbus didn’t disclose the financial terms of the deal.

—Cambridge-based Merrimack Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: MACK) won FDA approval of Onivyde, the name for its nanotherapeutic derivative of the old chemotherapy drug irinotecan. Onivyde is the first approved drug for pancreatic cancer patients who haven’t responded to prior treatment with gemcitabine. It’s meant to be taken in combination with 5-flourouracil (5-FU) and leucovorin. I wrote about the Phase 3 trial of Onivyde back in May 2014.

—Lexington, MA-based Synta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: SNTA) shares plummeted more than 63 percent after the company stopped early a study of its lead drug, ganetespib, because it wasn’t likely to extend the lives of lung cancer patients. Synta—whose shares now trade at roughly 74 cents apiece—is still testing the drug in ovarian cancer, acute myeloid leukemia, and myelodysplastic syndrome.

Photo of Mr. and Mrs. Met at the National League Championship Series courtesy of flickr user Arturo Pardavila III via a Creative Commons license.