Scandal, Swine Flu, Shareholder Disputes, and More: 2009 Was Quite a Year for San Diego’s Life Sciences Industry

Xconomy San Diego — 

Covering the life sciences in San Diego is never dull, and the news flow last year provided plenty of drama. What follows are some highlights from the past year:

— Embattled tools company Sequenom (NASDAQ: SQNM) scuttled the debut of a non-invasive prenatal Down syndrome test amid a data-mishandling scandal. CEO Harry Stylli was fired along with four other employees. Two others, including CFO Paul Hawran, resigned. The future of the diagnostic test is now in doubt and in November the company, which was being investigated by the SEC and FBI, said it was taking steps to conserve cash to improve its odds of survival.

—Dissident shareholders billionaire Carl Icahn and Eastbourne Capital won two of five board seats in a proxy fight that centered on San Diego-based Amylin Pharmaceuticals’ (NASDAQ: AMLN) strategic management of its strong-selling diabetes drug exenatide (Byetta). Months after its partial victory, Eastbourne sold its entire Amylin stake—after Eastbourne founder Rick Barry voiced some frustration over Amylin’s slow pace of change. Since then, the company struck an important deal to co-develop weight-loss drugs with Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

—The spread of swine flu provided a fleeting business opportunity to companies working on diagnostic equipment or novel vaccines. Quidel (NASDAQ: QDEL) reported a surge in sales driven by purchases of its rapid flu test and Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE) saw a bump in revenue from sales to public health laboratories of equipment and reagents for swine flu testing. Funding from the Navy enabled Vical (NASDAQ: VICL) to conduct pre-clinical studies of an experimental swine flu vaccine, but the company has not received the added support needed to conduct a human test.

San Diego’s emergence as a center for algae-based biofuels came into view during the Algae Biomass Summit in October. Two of the most closely watched algae biofuels companies are here: Sapphire Energy, which is backed by billionaire Bill Gates, and Synthetic Genomics, whose partner, ExxonMobil, announced plans in July to invest $600 million investment in algae-derived biofuels. They and other start-ups are taking advantage of the rich pool of biotechnology talent here. Still, there is no denying it’s early days, and the technology needs to prove itself.

—Biotechs Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ARNA) and Orexigen Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OREX) continued their race for the next blockbuster obesity drug. The companies have released clinical trial results showing … Next Page »

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