UK’s Enigma Looks to San Diego, Life Gets Sweeter for Senomyx, Arena Says Obesity Drug Is Not “Wimpy,” & More San Diego Life Sciences News

Xconomy San Diego — 

San Diego’s life sciences news picked up a bit last week amid fresh signs of the area’s growing prominence in the laboratory tools and diagnostics sectors.

—Carlsbad, CA-based Helixis, a startup maker of genetic analysis technology from the Caltech labs of Nobel Laureate David Baltimore and Axel Scherer, raised $1.8 million from unidentified investors, according to a regulatory filing. The amount is in addition to the $5.5 million the company reported raising in July. Helixis is developing products that attempt to make real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) technology more accessible to the average researcher.

Enigma Diagnostics CEO John McKinley told Bruce the UK-based medical diagnostics startup plans to close its current U.S. office in San Francisco and make a new office in San Diego its U.S. headquarters. McKinley estimated Enigma would have 30 employees in San Diego—“the diagnostics center for the U.S.,” as he put it—by mid-2010. The company has developed a desktop-size instrument based on advances in PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology, which McKinley says can identify certain pathogens in less than 45 minutes.

Sequenom, the San Diego-based maker of laboratory tools and diagnostics, disclosed that it agreed to accept a $1 million payment from Ibis Biosciences, a unit of Abbott Laboratories, to settle a patent infringement lawsuit. As part of the deal, Sequenom (NASDAQ: [[ticker: SQNM]]) granted Ibis a non-exclusive license to three mass spectrometry-based patents. Sequenom, meanwhile, remains under investigation by the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission for “mishandling” experimental data in a clinical trial of its prenatal test for Down syndrome.

Senomyx (NASDAQ: [[ticker: SNMX]]), the San Diego company using biotechnology to develop proprietary flavor enhancers and blockers, said S6973, a compound it has been developing to enhance the intensity of sucrose, was designated as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) under federal regulations that govern food additives. The GRAS designation allows the company to begin commercialization of the sweetness enhancer, which enables foodmakers to reduce sugar in foods and drinks by as much as 50 percent and still provide an equivalent sweet taste, according to Senomyx.

—San Diego-based Ligand Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: [[ticker: LGND]]) agreed to pay $3.2 million to acquire ailing Metabasis (NASDAQ: [[ticker: MBRX]]), a developer of treatments for diabetes and high cholesterol. Ligand committed $8 million to finance Metabasis’ drug development programs within the next 42 months.

The Burnham Institute for Medical Research made two key hires to support its translational research efforts. Paul Laikind, the co-founder of Gensia Pharmaceuticals, Viagene, and Metabasis, became the institute’s senior vice president of business development and chief business officer to help cut deals with biotech and pharma companies. Michael R. Jackson, formerly senior vice president of drug discovery at Johnson & Johnson, is now Burnham’s first-ever vice president for drug discovery and development, charged with translating Burnham discoveries into drug candidates primed for clinical testing.

—San Diego’s Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: [[ticker: ARNA]]) is talking up the safety profile of its experimental obesity drug as it prepares to compete against experimental treatments from San Diego-based Orexigen Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OREX) and Mountain View, CA-based Vivus (NASDAQ: VVUS), both of which produced greater weight loss in clinical trials. None of the drugs have yet been approved by the FDA. Arena CEO Jack Leif told Luke that the company’s drug, lorcaserin, improved diabetic and cardiovascular health markers in clinical trial subjects. He also challenged the notion that lorcaserin is a subpar obesity treatment. “This is not a wimpy weight-loss drug,” Leif said.