West Coast Biotech Roundup: Arena, Frazier, Kura, and Theranos

Xconomy San Diego — 

Palo Alto, CA-based Theranos continued its counter-offensive this week, as the private medical laboratory services company sought to rebut questions The Wall Street Journal has raised about the accuracy and reliability of its diagnostic technology.

After appearing last week at the Wall Street Journal Digital Live conference in Laguna Beach, CA, Theranos chairwoman and CEO Elizabeth Holmes went onstage in Cleveland Monday evening to say the company would publish data in support of its tests. “Data is a powerful thing because it speaks for itself,” she said at the Medical Innovation Summit in Cleveland, according to an account by Andy Pollock of The New York Times.

Holmes’ efforts in crisis communications were a new role for the Theranos CEO, who has had a storybook career since 2003, when she dropped out of Stanford at age 19 to found the company around microfluidic blood-testing technology that requires only a few drops of blood. Theranos has claimed its technology can rapidly perform a wide range of medical tests at lower cost than conventional tests that require several vials of blood.

Theranos also moved this week to address corporate governance concerns, saying it has restructured its corporate board from 12 members to five, and created two advisory boards. We’ll continue to track this saga, but in the meantime, here is our roundup of other West Coast life sciences news:

—San Diego’s Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ARNA) said it plans to shelve some clinical trials related to lorcaserin (Belviq), its flagship weight-loss drug, and lay off about 80 employees, or 35 percent of its U.S. workforce. The cuts would lower Arena’s operating costs by about $11 million annually. But more belt-tightening may be needed. In its most-recent quarterly filing, Arena reported $9.2 million in second-quarter sales of Belviq, but the company spent $24.2 million on R&D and another $8.8 million on general and administrative expenses. That worked out to a second-quarter net loss of $26.8 million.

—Frazier Healthcare Partners has a new pool of cash to invest, after closing on a $262 million fund that it will begin to deploy in 2016. Frazier managing partner Jamie Topper told Xconomy the new fund, Frazier Life Sciences VIII, will focus solely on therapeutics companies, with half to two-thirds of the capital earmarked for seed or Series A rounds.

—Kura Oncology, which filed for an $86 million IPO on October 20th, disclosed its terms Wednesday in an updated regulatory filing. Kura, which already trades over the counter, now plans to raise $60 million by offering 3.75 million shares at $16 as part of its move to Nasdaq. At the proposed price, Kura would be valued at about $359 million, according to Renaissance Capital.

—UC San Diego unveiled a new campus-wide research initiative focused on the millions of microbes that live symbiotically in the human gut and on skin, just as two groups of American and European scientists called for a unified effort to advance microbiome research.

—San Francisco software company Enlitic is building a computer system to help doctors make faster, more accurate diagnoses, and it’s gotten its first major customer in the Australian radiology provider Capitol Health. Capitol also is leading Enlitic’s $10 million Series B round of funding. Capitol, which has 51 clinics, will begin feeding its archives of MRIs, X-rays, and other diagnostic images into Enlitic’s system, which uses “deep learning” technology to make diagnoses.

—San Diego-based Vital Therapies is looking to raise $30 million in a follow-on offering of shares. Vital Therapies will use the money as working capital, to support general corporate functions and to advance its external liver assistance device, a cell-based system to treat acute liver failure.

—In third-quarter financial results posted last week, Shire said it had agreed to pay the former shareholders of San Diego’s Lumena Pharmaceuticals a total of $90 million in a negotiated deal covering all future contingent milestone payments. When Shire’s buyout of Lumena was announced last year, Shire agreed to pay $260 million upfront for the company, but details about milestone payments were not disclosed. Lumena was developing new oral drugs for four rare liver diseases, each arising from metabolic disorders that lead to a build-up of bile acid in the liver.

—San Diego’s Arcturus, which agreed to a worldwide research collaboration with J&J’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals in June, has signed another partnership deal for work on rare diseases with Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical (NASDAQ: RARE). Ultragenyx agreed to pay Arcturus $10 million upfront to discover and develop messenger RNA (mRNA) therapeutics. A spokeswoman says it’s the biggest monetary deal for Arcturus since the specialist in RNA interference (RNAi) technology was founded two years ago.

—Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS) said it earned a $5 million milestone payment from partner GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) that was triggered by the initiation of an early stage clinical trial of its experimental drug ISIS-GSK4-Lrx.

—Antiviral drugmaker Gilead Sciences of Foster City, CA, reported third quarter earnings that indicate sales of its blockbuster hepatitis C drugs are slowing down. But the biggest number of the report was $25 billion: the dollars Gilead has banked.

—Amgen of Thousand Oaks, CA, got FDA approval for the skin cancer drug known as T-Vec (talimogene laherparepvec).

—South San Francisco, CA-based Cytokinetics and its development partner Amgen reported positive Phase 2 results for their chronic heart failure drug omecamtiv mecarbil.

—Santa Monica, CA-based Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE) said it signed a research and licensing agreement with Alpine Immune Sciences, a private biotech in Seattle developing ways to harness the body’s own immune system to target cancer and autoimmune disease. Kite will make an upfront payment of $5 million to Alpine, and agreed to make other payments, for rights to research, develop, and commercialize engineered autologous T cell therapies from Alpine.

—UC San Francisco is now enrolling women who face breast cancer surgery in a clinical trial for AVB-620, a diagnostic agent developed by San Diego’s Avelas Biosciences that helps surgeons differentiate cancerous tissue from healthy tissue in real time.