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West Coast Biotech Roundup: Tobira, Novartis, NantCell, & More

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Whew. J.P. Morgan is almost over. (The healthcare conference, that is, not the investment bank.)

Opening the week’s proceedings at the Biotech Showcase, a satellite conference that features small, private, often European companies that would get trampled at the main event, Sangamo Biosciences CEO Ed Lanphier greeted the early crowd: “Welcome to Hell Week.”

We’ll soon have a notebook full of thoughts, observations, and other news from the conference itself—and all the discussions, interviews, chance meetings, and parties that revolve around it—but let’s get the rest of the West Coast biotech news out of the way. To the roundup!

—Tobira Therapeutics of San Francisco and Regado Biosciences of Basking Ridge, NJ, said they would merge, a move that gives the privately held Tobira access to the public markets. Just before the holidays the firm had revived its move toward an IPO. Now that’s not necessary thanks to the reverse merger with Regado, a publicly traded company that has been essentially a shell since its Phase 3 drug REG1 failed last summer. Tobira is testing its lead drug in liver disease and HIV. With the merger, Tobira also pulled in a $22 million funding round from existing backers.

—Terms of a deal announced by Novartis (NYSE: NVS) and Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) make it clear that clinical trials are emerging as a new global market for wearable health monitors and related technologies. Novartis is using Qualcomm Life’s wireless 2net platform to aggregate patient data in clinical trials. In a related move, Qualcomm and Novartis agreed to form a $100 million fund to invest in innovative digital health startups.

—Second Genome of South San Francisco, CA, said Monday it had been quietly testing for months its first product to reach human trials, a drug to treat Crohn’s disease by blocking the inflammatory effects of a disrupted microbiome. Those Phase 1 tests will continue into 2015. (See another microbiome item below.)

—NantCell of Los Angeles said it has acquired from Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) the Phase 3 cancer treatment ganitumab. NantCell is the new immuno-oncology arm of billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong’s NantWorks.

—Invitae of San Francisco filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission its first public IPO documents. The diagnostics firm was not specific about its fundraising goals.

—Human Longevity Inc. (HLI), a San Diego startup co-founded by human genome pioneer Craig Venter, signed a multi-year agreement with Roche’s Genentech to carry out whole genome sequencing on tens of thousands of anonymized patient samples from Genentech. The goal is to use whole genome sequencing to identify new drug targets and diagnostic biomarkers.

—San Diego’s Obalon Therapeutics said it has raised $20 million in funding to advance its medical device technology, an inflatable gastric balloon to help patients lose weight. Obalon also secured a $10 million loan from Square 1 Bank.

—Late last week insurance firm Anthem chose Harvoni from Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) as its primary hepatitis C treatment.

—Global Blood Therapeutics of South San Francisco, CA, said Monday it has dosed the first patients in a Phase 1/2 sickle cell disease trial.

—Polynoma, a San Diego biopharmaceutical that is part of Hong Kong-based CK Life Sciences, said it has started a late-stage trial of a new vaccine for melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer. The multi-center study, being conducted under an FDA-approved special protocol assessment, is intended to enroll nearly 1,100 melanoma patients.

—Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) said it will work with MD Anderson Cancer Center of Houston to develop Amgen’s dual-acting antibodies as treatments for the blood disorder known as myelodysplastic syndrome.

—Specialty drug maker Jazz Pharmaceuticals will soon have a new building in Palo Alto, CA, under construction.

—Call it a “gutsy move.” Rob Knight, a renowned expert in the human microbiome and bioinformatics, is joining the faculty at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. Knight, who was previously at the University of Colorado, told U-T San Diego that UCSD “has a unique combination of high-performance computing, immunology, excellent clinical researchers and biobanks, natural products chemistry, metabolomics, and, recently, a gnotobiotic mouse facility (which allows tests of hypotheses about which microbes are important).”

Xconomy San Diego Editor Bruce V. Bigelow contributed to this report.