West Coast Biotech Roundup: Amgen, Ariosa, Avanir, Audentes & More

Where is biotech innovation? All over, we would contend, but according to The Scientist magazine, San Diego has been an especially good place to look this year. The publication listed its top 10 life science innovations of 2014, and five are from San Diego companies. Fifty percent. It might have helped that 40 percent of The Scientist’s five judges were San Diego locals: Domain Associates managing partner Kim Kamdar and Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS) co-founder David Ecker.

It also helps that San Diego is a hotbed of sequencing technology, and 2014 was a particularly juicy time for that field. No. 1 on the list is the Dragen Bio-IT processor from San Diego-based Edico Genome, developed to accelerate the analysis of whole genome sequencing data. The rest of the list, which focuses on tests, technologies, and research tools, not therapeutics, is here.

We’ll certainly hear about biomedical innovation this weekend as the American Society of Hematology meeting convenes in San Francisco. Blood cancers and other disorders are a near horizon for all manner of genetic-manipulation technologies and new types of cell-based therapy. We’ll have reports from San Francisco for you, and of course you’ll be able to catch up on it all in this space next week.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Thanks to the long Thanksgiving weekend, we have even more items to round up for you. Let’s get to it.

— Thousand Oaks, CA-based Amgen received the FDA’s green light for blinatumomab (Blincyto) in a small subset of patients with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma. It is one of the few immunotherapies approved for cancer, and it got the nod five months faster than expected thanks to various FDA designations to speed up review.

—A week earlier, Amgen had to pull its stomach-cancer treatment rilotumumab from Phase 3 trials because the arm of the trial using rilo, as it’s known, had more patient deaths than the non-rilo arm.

—Dendreon’s bankruptcy case will have key hearings next week as the Seattle immunotherapy company tries to find a buyer with a minimum $275 million bid. How likely is that, and how rare is a biotech bankruptcy? We explore those two questions here.

—Facing tough competition in the noninvasive prenatal test business, Ariosa Diagnostics jumped into the arms of Roche, which is paying an undisclosed amount for the San Jose firm.

—Audentes Therapeutics of San Francisco landed a $42.5 million Series B round as it develops gene therapies for rare diseases. Its two lead candidates are for Pompe disease and X-Linked myotubular myopathy, a muscle disorder. Neither is yet in clinical trials. Deerfield Management led the round.

—San Rafael, CA-based BioMarin Pharmaceutical bought Dutch firm Prosensa for $680 million plus $160 million more if Prosensa’s treatment for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy passes regulatory muster in the U.S. and E.U.

—San Diego-based Neothetics (NASDAQ: NEOT) sold 4.65 million shares in its pre-Thanksgiving IPO and raised $65 million. The company is trying to repurpose an approved asthma drug as a means of reducing belly fat. Before the IPO, venture investors Domain Associates had a 36 percent stake, Alta Partners had 30 percent, and RMI Investments held 17 percent.

—Antibody technology firm Ablexis of San Francisco said Thursday that it has settled a lawsuit brought by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals over its AlivaMab transgenic mouse, which drug makers use to develop antibody-based therapeutics. Ablexis also said that after four years of limited exclusive licensing, the AlivaMab mouse is now available for non-exclusive license.

—PneumRx of Mountain View, CA, was acquired by British healthcare firm BTG for $230 million up front and up to $245 million in future milestones. PneumRx makes a device called the RePneu Coil to treat emphysema; it has been on the European market for six years but is not yet approved in the U.S.

—Japan’s Otsuka Pharmaceutical has bought Aliso Viejo, CA-based Avanir Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AVNR) for $3.5 billion, or $17 a share, to grab Avanir’s portfolio of neurology products. Chief among them is the approved combination of dextromethorphan and quinidine (Nuedexta) for pseudobulbar affect—involuntary emotional outbursts tied to neurological disease or injury.

—Two months after laying off 70 percent of its staff, Exelixis (NASDAQ: EXEL) of South San Francisco, CA, said its Phase 3 COMET-2 trial of cabozantinib in men with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer did not meet its primary endpoint. The layoffs in September came after bad news from its COMET-1 trial effectively ended the company’s prostate cancer program. In the first quarter of 2015, Exelixis will report Phase 3 results of cabozantinib in liver and kidney cancer.

—Danish biotech Ascendis Pharma, which has top executives based in the San Francisco Bay Area, raised a $60 million Series D financing to push its growth hormone candidate into late-stage clinical trials and its treatment for pulmonary arterial hypertension into the clinic. New investors Sofinnova Ventures, OrbiMed and Vivo Capital led the round.

—San Ramon, CA-based HealthTell said it has received a small-business grant from the National Institutes of Health to evaluate the company’s technology, which uses a patient’s blood sample, in the diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme, the most common form of brain cancer.

—The approved cancer immunotherapy pembrolizumab (Keytruda) from Merck (NYSE: MRK) was the subject of a University of California, Los Angeles, study, where researchers delved into the biology behind patient response (or nonresponse) to the melanoma treatment. The researchers used the immunoSeq assay from Adaptive Biotechnologies of Seattle and said they identified a key biomarker that could help stratify patients. The study was published in Nature last week.

Xconomy San Diego editor Bruce Bigelow contributed to this report.

Photo of San Diego Bay courtesy of David Purcell, used with permission.


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