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 company will change its name. She will become president and COO, with Avalanche CEO Paul Cleveland keeping his title. The deal will close in the second quarter upon Avalanche shareholder approval.

—In the wake of being run briefly by Martin Shkreli, KaloBios Pharmaceuticals filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late December in an attempt to reorganize. The firm objected this week when the Justice Department’s bankruptcy group recommended KaloBios switch to Chapter 7—a path to liquidation—and be placed under a trustee, as Reuters reported. KaloBios said in a statement this week that the recommendation was based on factual errors. The company said, for example, that it is still in discussions to buy a drug to treat Chagas disease—a deal that Shkreli had touted when he took over KaloBios last year.

—OncoGenex Pharmaceuticals of Bothell, WA, is cutting a quarter of its staff to help preserve the $55 million cash it had on hand at the end of 2015.

—Aira.io, a San Diego startup developing software-based guidance for visually impaired people, said it has raised $2.5 million in Series A financing after raising an initial $800,000 in October. Xconomy profiled Aira.io executive chairman Larry Bock last year.

—Former Encad CEO David Purcell has stepped out of retirement to develop a new type of medical walker—the LifeWalker—set for launch later this month at the American Physical Therapy Association meeting in Anaheim, CA. Purcell says he plans to incorporate artificial intelligence into future versions of the LifeWalker, which is designed to let users walk longer, more safely, and more comfortably than with conventional walkers and canes.

—Huya Bioscience International, a San Diego-based biotech developing drugs throughout Asia, said Japan’s Eisai is paying up to $280 million for rights to Huya’s experimental cancer drug HBI-8000 in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore. HBI-8000 is being tested as a potential treatment for solid tumors and non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

—Pear Therapeutics of San Francisco and Cambridge, MA, has raised $20 million in private funding from 5AM Ventures, Arboretum Ventures, Jazz Venture Partners, and others. The firm is working on digital therapies for addiction and other mental health conditions.

—San Diego’s Conatus Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CNAT) said the FDA has granted fast track status to emricasan, the company’s drug candidate for treating liver cirrhosis caused by nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).

Photo of Stanford University courtesy of Kazuhisa Otsubo via a Creative Commons license.