West Coast Bio Roundup: Tessier-Lavigne, Twist, Unity, Grail & More

Xconomy San Francisco — 

The biggest news on the West Coast this week came from Stanford University. The school has lured decorated neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne away from New York’s Rockefeller University to be the 11th president on The Farm, as Stanford is often known. It’s a return to the West Coast for Tessier-Lavigne, who had risen to chief scientific officer at Genentech after many years at the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford. Xconomy has an East Coast perspective on the move, and what it means for the biotech scene in New York City, where Tessier-Lavigne worked to boost the local biomedical and entrepreneurial profile.

Meanwhile, in a story posted yesterday, Xconomy examined Grail, the recent spinout from Illumina that aims to launch a blood test in three years to find previously undetected cancers, even microscopic tumors, in seemingly healthy people. Grail wants to pull off the incredibly ambitious feat—identifying minute amounts of tumor DNA floating in a patient’s blood—while proving that screening healthy people will do more good than harm.

Also in the roundup this week, KaloBios Pharmaceuticals protested in the Bay Area while its former CEO Martin Shkreli pleaded the fifth before Congress. A new Bay Area company, Unity Biotechnology, outlined its plan to treat “diseases of aging” by killing dormant cells. And San Diego’s ViaCyte consolidated its embryonic stem cell program for Type 1 diabetes by merging with a rival. All this and more, so let’s get to it.

—Unity Biotechnology has been working under the radar on the puzzle of cells that go dormant—a state called senescence—and appear to be driving so-called “diseases of aging.” To coincide this week with the publication of research from the Mayo Clinic, which Unity has licensed, the Novato, CA-based firm launched with an undisclosed amount of funding from Arch Venture Partners, Venrock, and others. It plans to develop small molecule drugs that kill senescent cells. The startup has programs aim to treat osteoarthritis, glaucoma, and other conditions, but the first tests in humans could be years away.

—San Diego-based ViaCyte is merging with Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen BetaLogics, a deal that consolidates the bets J&J has made on the two rivals leading the field of stem cell-derived therapy for type 1 diabetes. ViaCyte also disclosed early results from a phase 1 study, which is believed to be the first human data from a stem cell-based treatment for diabetes.

—Synthetic DNA maker Twist Bioscience of San Francisco is being sued by Agilent Technologies for alleged intellectual property theft. The complaint alleges Twist CEO Emily LeProust, a former Agilent employee, stole technology and poached employees for Twist, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Twist responded with a statement that labeled Agilent’s charges “an obvious attempt to stifle competition.”

—The San Francisco biotech accelerator Indie Bio held a demo day Thursday for its latest class. Fourteen companies presented short pitches, working on lab-grown food substitutes, acne treatments, technology that aims to sequence DNA, RNA, and proteins at once, and more.

—Avalanche Biotechnologies (NASDAQ: [[AAVL]]) of Menlo Park, CA, said it would buy another gene therapy company, Annapurna Therapeutics, in an all-stock deal. Avalanche is using 17.6 million shares to buy all of Annapurna—formerly known as AAVLife. Annapurna CEO Amber Salzman told Xconomy the merged … Next Page »

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