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 that pointed to information about its drug tenofovir (Viread) with the phrase “hepatitis B prevention.” But prevention is not part of the drug’s official label. The FDA sent a warning letter to Gilead late last month, and the Wall Street Journal‘s Pharmalot column reported it Tuesday.

—Histogen, a San Diego regenerative medicine company with technology for growing human cells under simulated embryonic conditions, said it has formed Histogen Oncology in a joint venture funded by a group of experts from the medical device industry. Histogen said it has identified a “sub-fraction” of its proprietary human multipotent cell conditioned media that has inhibited growth of malignant cells and circulating tumor cells.

—The state of Washington’s Life Science Discovery Fund will start accepting proposals for two grant programs available to nonprofits and for-profits, but only if the for-profits have not exceeded $500,000 in equity investment or convertible debt. The rules for the grant programs are here and here.

—Syapse of Palo Alto, CA, said Thursday it has raised a $10 million Series B round led by Safeguard Scientifics (NYSE: SFE). Syapse software combines medical and genomic patient data to help clinicians make treatment decisions.

—Raptor Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: RPTP) of Novato, CA, announced Monday its CEO succession plan. Julie Anne Smith, currently executive vice president and COO, will take over the top spot at the start of 2015 from Chris Starr, a co-founder who has run the drug maker for nine years. Raptor has one product on the market, a treatment for the rare kidney disease nephropathic cystinosis, in the U.S. and E.U.

—Tocagen, a San Diego biotech developing gene therapy treatments for gliomas and other terminal cancers, has raised about $8.5 million of a planned $15.7 million investment round, according to a regulatory filing last week. A spokeswoman for the startup, founded by serial entrepreneur Harry Gruber, says Tocagen “does not disclose how much it has raised.” She also notes “the SEC filing does not represent a complete picture of the company’s financing objectives.”

Scripps Pier photo courtesy of SD Dirk via a Creative Commons license.