West Coast Biotech Roundup: Scripps, Trounson, Versant, Gilead, & More

Xconomy San Francisco — 

The big news out west this week revolves around institutional drama. In San Diego, the faculty at The Scripps Research Institute has taken issue with merger talks that the president and board have had with the University of Southern California. The Union-Tribune advanced the story late last week, and Scripps acknowledged Wednesday that the talks have been terminated “by mutual consent of both parties.”

One of the nation’s top biomedical research groups, Scripps’ flirtations with USC have stemmed from a need to address a $21 million budget deficit, according to the U-T. President Michael Marletta, whose resignation the faculty has called for, the U-T reported last week, will now have to find other revenue sources to close that budget gap.

There was more drama up the coast in San Francisco related to the state’s stem cell agency, which we sum up in our first item this week. We also round up the week’s IPO, clinical, venture and regulatory news.

—Alan Trounson, the former president of California’s public stem-cell funding agency, was named Monday to the board of Newark, CA-based stem-cell therapy developer StemCells. The move came just one week after Trounson officially left the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which in recent years has had to address serious conflict-of-interest concerns. CIRM’s new president, Randy Mills, responded in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle Wednesday that while Trounson’s appointment is legal, it creates “a risk of a conflict of interest.” Mills underscored the legal restrictions regarding Trounson’s new role, and he promised that CIRM would conduct a “full review of CIRM’s activities relating to StemCells.” To pursue an Alzheimer’s disease treatment, StemCells and the University of California, Irvine received a $19 million award from CIRM in 2012, during Trounson’s tenure. Projects run by Stanford professor Irving Weissman, a StemCells cofounder and board member, have received $35 million over the years, and Stanford has received hundreds of millions of dollars from the agency. Trounson has said he is moving back to his native Australia.

—San Diego’s Pfenex, an early-stage biotech specializing in biosimilars, aims to price its stock at $12 to $14 a share in an IPO that could arrive next week, according to a regulatory filing. Pfenex was spun out of Dow Chemical, currently its largest shareholder, to advance technology that uses a fluorescing microbe in a fermentation process to make a variety of protein biotherapeutics, including drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic reagents. The company’s lead drug candidate is a version of ranibizumab, (Lucentis), Roche’s treatment for wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Pfenex plans to trade on the New York Stock Exchange under ticker symbol PFNX.

—Versant Ventures, a life science investment firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is approaching its goal of a new $300 million fund, according to an SEC filing. The new fund, its fifth, will have a strong Canadian flavor. At least four of its new backers are Canadian funds, and Versant itself has established three Canadian satellites to do lab work and incubate biopharmaceutical programs.

—San Diego-based Otonomy said it has successfully completed two late-stage clinical trials of AuriPro, a gel formulation of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin to treat middle ear infections in children who undergo tympanostomy tube placement surgery. In parallel studies with a combined total of 532 patients, the antibiotic showed statistically significant improvements, Otonomy said. The company said it plans to seek regulatory approval for AuriPro in the United States.

—As it issued new social-media guidelines for drug makers, the FDA chided Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD), of Foster City, CA, about a paid search link … Next Page »

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