Viracta, Neurelis & More: The Latest in San Diego Biotech

Xconomy San Diego — 

[Corrected 12/6/18, 2:32 p.m. See below.] Even as all eyes were on the American Society of Hematology (ASH) conference in downtown San Diego this week, other biotech companies were staying busy. Let’s get caught up with the latest life sciences news in San Diego.

(Check out Xconomy’s ASH coverage here and here.)

—Viracta Therapeutics has raised $10 million from China’s Salubris Pharmaceuticals as part of a larger ongoing financing round.

The San Diego biotech is developing therapies for cancers related to the Epstein-Barr virus. Viracta said Tuesday that it has also entered into a licensing agreement with Salubris (NASDAQ: NK), a Shenzhen-based company with more than 4,000 employees, to bring its experimental cancer treatment to China. That agreement could net it up to $58 million more. New investor Virtus Inspire Ventures also participated in the Salubris-led financing round, as well as existing Viracta investors NantKwest, Latterell Venture Partners, and Forward Ventures.

NantKwest (NASDAQ: NK), billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong’s Los Angeles-based company, led Viracta’s $18.5 million Series B round, announced last year. At the time of the financing, Viracta CEO Ivor Royston, a longtime Forward Ventures partner, told Xconomy that he helped start Viracta with technology from San Diego’s HemaQuest Pharmaceuticals, originally developed in Douglas Faller’s lab at Boston University.

—Neurelis has acquired Aegis Therapeutics, a San Diego drug delivery technology company it previously partnered with on its lead product candidate, an experimental diazepam nasal spray (Valtoco).

Aegis’s portfolio includes three non-invasive drug delivery and stabilization technologies that Neurelis says are applicable to a wide range of molecules.

Valtoco is a proprietary formulation of diazepam plus a vitamin E-based solution and one of the Aegis technologies, Intravail. Aegis says Intravail has been shown to increase absorption and reduce variability of drugs when incorporated in the formulation, with no known negative impact on safety or tolerability. Neurelis anticipates the spray will receive FDA approval and launch commercially in 2019. President and CEO Craig Chambliss said Neurelis intends to integrate Intravail into other products under development in its pipeline, which includes drug candidates to treat acute anxiety episodes or panic attacks and to stop prolonged, life-threatening epileptic seizures.

—Salk scientist Nicola Allen will receive $2.5 million over five years from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), which on Wednesday announced the launch of the organization’s Neurodegeneration Challenge Network. [A previous version incorrectly referred to CZI as a foundation; it is a limited liability company.] CZI awarded grants totaling nearly $52 million to a network of global scientists to further understanding of the underlying causes of disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and ALS.

Allen, an assistant professor in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory in San Diego’s La Jolla community, received the CZI’s Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Award. She will study the role of astrocytes, star-shaped brain cells that, with more insight into the cells’ activities, could help advance potential causes and treatments for dementia, according to CZI. The foundation is distributing a total of $42.5 million for these awards; 17 investigators will receive $2.5 million each.

Allen is also part of an American Heart Association-Allen Initiative-funded eight-year, $19.2 million multidisciplinary investigation being carried out by 10 Salk labs to delve into the mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease and aging-related cognitive decline.

The causes of such neurodegenerative disorders, which affect millions of people worldwide, are only partly understood. There are no therapies approved to cure, prevent, or treat most of the disorders.