Merck’s Creationist-Turned-Genomicist, Pfizer’s VC Leader Scouts the Northwest, Zymo Nabs $20M, & More Seattle-Area Life Sciences News

This was a busy week in Xconomy’s life sciences department with lots of story ideas to chase at Invest Northwest, a fascinating life story of Merck’s Eric Schadt, and the usual pace of breaking news.

—Merck’s Eric Schadt has been in the news lately since he and Rosetta Inpharmatics founder Stephen Friend told me about their ambition to create an open-source movement for biology. When I caught up with him for a profile, he shared his amazing life story. He was raised by “extremely conservative” creationist parents in a small town in Michigan, where education wasn’t emphasized. Yet he has gone on to become one of the world’s leading genomic scientists.

—Pfizer’s venture capital leader, Barbara Dalton, was in town this week to scout for interesting life sciences technologies, and give a keynote address at Invest Northwest. I caught up with her for an interview about Pfizer’s venture investing strategy.

—One of the intriguing panel discussions at Invest Northwest featured Arch Venture Partners’ Steve Gillis, Allozyne CEO Meenu Chhabra, and ZymoGenetics CEO Doug Williams. They opined on various things that can be done to keep innovative biotech ideas alive.

—Seattle-based ZymoGenetics (NASDAQ: ZGEN) disclosed this week that it received a $20 million milestone payment from its partner, Bristol-Myers Squibb. The two companies are teaming up to develop pegylated interferon lambda, which is designed to have the anti-viral killing ability of an interferon without the flu-like side effects that have plagued the standard drug for hepatitis C for years.

—Kirkland, WA-based OVP Venture Partners has strengthened its connections with the Weissman family. The venture firm announced this week that Stanford University stem cell researcher Irving Weissman has agreed to become a technical adviser to OVP, just a few months after his son, Carl Weissman, was named a managing director of the firm.

—Seattle-based Cell Therapeutics disclosed this week in its annual report that there were “severe cardiac events” in a clinical trial of its lead product candidate, pixantrone, for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The company said back in November that the drug reached its goal of completely shrinking tumors for 14 out of 70 patients on the drug, compared with 4 of 70 who did that well in a control group. It didn’t release a full safety profile on the drug then, but in its annual report, it reported that 5 out of 70 in the pixantrone group had “severe cardiac events,” compared with 2 of 70 in the control group. CEO James Bianco objected to the story, saying the heart problems could have been caused by other factors, and researchers who monitored the trial didn’t see “consequential differences in cardiac toxicity” between the two study groups. More data supporting this point will be presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in late May and early June, he said.

—Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) disclosed its year-end financial report, which said it had about $109 million in cash heading into 2009. The company is now preparing for the final analysis of a clinical trial of 500 men, which looked at whether its immune-boosting therapy for prostate cancer, Provenge, is able to help them live longer.

—Just before Invest Northwest, I interviewed one of the featured speakers, George Milstein, the head of healthcare M&A at Wedbush Pacific Growth Life Sciences. He has been in the biotech business for 15 years, has seen a couple big busts before, and sees mergers and acquisitions as the way to stay afloat as a banker when nobody’s doing IPOs anymore.

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