West Coast Biotech Roundup: Grail, Juno, Amgen, Imprimis & More

Xconomy San Diego — 

The continuing market selloff has been brutal to biotech stocks. Barron’s reports that the SPDR S&P Biotech exchange traded fund and the iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF are both in bear territory, having dropped 50 percent and 39 percent, respectively, since their summer peaks. Yet in San Diego, at least, the preceding boom has enabled a whole new generation of life sciences startups to take root. In a bid to identify a dozen of the more promising startups, I found nearly 80 new companies. It’s the great circle of life. And now let’s get to our weekly roundup of life sciences news.

—Cancer diagnostic maker Grail, the San Francisco-based spinout of San Diego-based Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), named top Google executive Jeff Huber as its first CEO. Grail launched a month ago with ambitions to develop a blood test that detects early stage cancer in seemingly healthy people. Before Huber was announced, Xconomy raised several questions about its plans last week. An engineer by trade, Huber ran some of Google’s most important businesses, including advertising and mapping. He told Xconomy he is motivated by “purpose and passion” after his wife died last year from cancer.

—San Diego compounding pharmacy Imprimis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: IMMY) said Wednesday it would create low-cost alternatives to the kidney stone treatment Thiola. Thiola went from $1.50 a pill to $30 in 2014 after it was acquired by Retrophin, which was then run by Martin Shkreli. It’s the second time Imprimis has vowed to counter one of Shkreli’s price-gouging moves. The company gained attention last year for a low-cost version of Daraprim after Shkreli notoriously raised that anti-parasite drug’s price from $13.50 to $750 a tablet. (Imprimis compounds are not FDA approved.)

—The FDA halted a late-stage clinical trial of Seattle-based CTI BioPharma’s experimental drug pacritinib, a candidate for treating myelofibrosis and other cancers. The Seattle Times reported that an undisclosed number of patients died of heart attack and bleeding inside the skull in a phase 3 trial with more than 300 patients. CTI BioPharma said all patients currently on pacritinib must discontinue pacritinib immediately.

—In an effort to highlight some of San Diego’s unheralded life sciences startups, Xconomy screened close to 80 companies before publishing his pick of 12 life sciences companies to watch in 2016.

—San Diego’s Amplyx Pharmaceuticals said it has added another $8.7 million to extend its Series B round to $49.2 million. Amplyx CEO Mike Grey, who was previously the CEO of Lumena Pharmaceuticals, said Amplyx is well-positioned to push APX001, an anti-fungal drug it licensed last year, through Phase 2. A new investor, 3X5 Partners, joins RiverVest Venture Partners, New Enterprise Associates, and BioMed Ventures in the round.

—The U.K.’s drug cost gatekeeper, known as NICE, said British patients who need to lower cholesterol could, in some cases, use Repatha from Thousand Oaks, CA-based Amgen, which overturns an earlier ruling from the agency. Also good news for Amgen was that NICE rejected use of a rival drug Praluent, from Sanofi and Regeneron. Both decisions were preliminary, not final.

—Seattle’s Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO) awarded extra bonuses to CEO Hans Bishop ($148,750) and CFO Steven Harr ($112,000), bringing their total annual bonuses to $425,000 for Bishop and $320,000 for Harr. Juno signed a $1 billion licensing deal with Celgene last year, and recently disclosed plans to acquire Boston-based AbVitro for $125 million.

—Redwood City, CA-based Armo Biosciences said it has raised $50 million in a Series C financing to support clinical development of its lead cancer immunotherapy drug, AM0010, for treating advanced solid tumors. Some new investors led the round: HBM Healthcare Investments, GV (formerly Google Ventures); Celgene, Industrial Investors Group; and certain private funds advised by Clough Capital Partners. All existing investors also participated.

—Revitope Oncology, a San Francisco company developing cancer immunotherapy technology initiated by Mark Cobbold in the United Kingdom in 2010, said it has raised $8.5 million to advance its approach to treating solid tumors and blood cancers. Revitope’s technology aims to make the immune system recognize cancer cells as viruses, which triggers an immune response.

—San Diego’s Cidara Therapeutics, (NASDAQ: CDTX) said the FDA has granted orphan drug designation to CD101 IV for the treatment of life threatening candidiasis and candidemia infections.