The Biotech Roundup: Immunotherapy Ups And Downs, Gene Deals & More

Xconomy National — 

A quick housekeeping note: Starting this week, we are combining our East Coast and West Coast biotech roundups into a single weekly post that will also include highlights from our other cities and regions, including Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Xconomy’s latest bureau, Indiana. As with our bygone coastal roundups, this new national roundup is not meant to be all-inclusive, but more a short curated tour of Xconomy’s coverage and the life-science buzz of the most recent seven days. As usual, we welcome your feedback.

This week, the high-profile fields of cancer diagnostics and immunotherapy were in the spotlight for legal, regulatory, and clinical reasons. Theranos continued its slow-motion implosion, correcting two years of blood-test results, while CEO Elizabeth Holmes searched for a new assistant. (Sorry, we won’t be applying this time.)

Speaking of buzz, the U.S. Senate approved a $1.1 billion emergency bill to fight the spread of mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has sent drug makers and others scrambling for solutions. But a fight looms with the House, which passed a smaller bill earlier this year.

There were developments in gene therapy and gene editing. On the deal front, Celgene was in action, and Pfizer wrapped up a multi-billion-dollar buyout. And the American Civil Liberties Union, instrumental in the historic fight to invalidate gene patents, is mixing it up again with old nemesis Myriad Genetics. From coast to coast, from border to border, it’s roundup time. Let’s kick it off with the week’s immunotherapy news.

—Aduro Biotech (NASDAQ: ADRO) of Berkeley, CA, reported bad news about its combination immunotherapy treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer. In a Phase 2 trial, patients taking the treatment, based in part on Aduro’s engineered Listeria bacteria, did not fare as well as patients who were on chemotherapy.

—The FDA approved a new immunotherapy for advanced bladder cancer, marking the fourth so-called checkpoint inhibitor to reach the market. The drug atezolizumab (Tecentriq) was developed by Roche’s Genentech division and will cost $12,500 a month, roughly the same as other checkpoint inhibitors.

—Moving on to gene therapy, Cambridge, MA-based Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) formed a wide-ranging alliance with two of the field’s pioneers at the University of Pennsylvania, James Wilson and Jean Bennett. Biogen will lean on Wilson and Bennett to develop seven gene therapy programs for a variety of diseases and to gain access to next-generation technology for future gene therapies.

—In other gene therapy news, Spark Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ONCE) provided the first clinical data in humans for its hemophilia B treatment—early yet promising results that bumped Spark’s shares up about 13 percent. Several companies are developing a gene therapy for hemophilia, and a few of them have begun clinical testing over the past year.

—The world might not be ready for CRISPR! The Musical (or is it….?), but the headline-making gene editing technology continued to attract deals. Caribou Biosciences of Berkeley, CA, raised a $30 million Series B round. South San Francisco, CA-based Agenovir, which aims to use CRISPR to wipe out persistent viral infections, raised a $10.6 million Series A round. (Summit, NJ-based Celgene is an investor.) And Cambridge-based Editas Medicine (NASDAQ: EDIT) received $5 million from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, no stranger to drug development and lucrative returns, to develop a gene editing therapy for cystic fibrosis.

—Known in large part for its multiple myeloma franchise, Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) has also been building an immuno-oncology portfolio. On that front, it revamped its partnership with Cambridge-based Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AGIO) this week; Xconomy spoke with Agios CEO David Schenkein about the deal and its $200 million upfront payment.

—On behalf of four people who ordered genetic tests, the ACLU has filed a complaint with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department against Myriad Genetics (NASDAQ: MYGN) of Salt Lake City. The customers said Myriad did not initially provide them the full extent of their genetic information; according to reports, Myriad did so only after the ACLU said it would take the case public. A Myriad statement said the complaint lacked merit.

—New York-based Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) spent some of the cash once ticketed for the failed Allergan merger, buying Anacor Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ANAC) of Palo Alto, CA, for $5.2 billion, or $99.25 per share. Anacor has an experimental drug for eczema that could win FDA approval early next year. The nonprofit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was one of the deal’s big beneficiaries, as Bloomberg reported.

—Merck has closed down the Lebanon, NH-based headquarters of GlycoFi, a startup from Dartmouth College that Merck bought for $400 million in 2006. Tillman Gerngross, a GlycoFi co-founder and the CEO of Adimab, told Xconomy he’d be interested in buying the company back if it were available.

—Cambridge-based Foundation Medicine (NASDAQ: FMI) was awarded a U.S. patent for its tumor profiling technology, and then immediately sued rival diagnostic firm Guardant Health for alleged infringement, seeking financial compensation. Guardant believes the suit is without merit.

—French microbiome drug developer Enterome announced plans to open a U.S. post in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, joining a niche inhabited by other local microbiome startups like Seres Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MCRB) and Vedanta Biosciences.

—Finally, congratulations to this year’s recipients of the National Medals of Science, Technology, and Innovation.

Xconomy Deputy Biotech Editor Ben Fidler contributed to this report.