Dendreon’s Hiring Binge, Calistoga’s Venture Round, ZymoGenetics Unloads Drugs, & More Seattle-Area Life Sciences News

Biotech is a volatile business, and this week hammered home that point. Seattle had layoffs at one important device company (Pathway Medical), a hiring boom at another (Dendreon), and a national report that had some humbling stats about the local life sciences scene.

—Dendreon is moving ahead fast to make the most of its good fortune with a new drug for prostate cancer. Xconomy broke the news that the Seattle-based biotech company (NASDAQ: DNDN) is going on a hiring binge (64 new job listings and counting) to do all the manufacturing, marketing, and logistics work it will need to turn Provenge into a hit drug. We also discovered in the company’s quarterly report that it is looking to raise more capital to do the job. That may be good for shareholders, although they may be less thrilled with SEC filings that show Dendreon executives sold a bunch of their stock after the good news came out.

—Pathway Medical Technologies, the Kirkland, WA-based maker of a device that clears out blockages in leg arteries, said it is eliminating 39 jobs, or about one-fifth of its workforce. The company made the moves because its product isn’t living up to the aggressive sales projections it laid out, and the company fell short of its goal of raising $55 million in venture capital for the launch (although it still pocketed a tidy $42.3 million, says CEO Paul Buckman).

—ZymoGenetics is continuing to brace itself for a long, hard downturn. The Seattle biotech company (NASDAQ: ZGEN) cut one-third of its staff last week, and followed that up by unloading eight drug candidates that were sitting on its shelf, handing them over to a startup called Seattle Life Sciences. Zymo also reported first-quarter financials, which showed its lone marketed product, recombinant thrombin (Recothrom), is still struggling to get momentum in the marketplace. The drug is still expected to reach its sales goal of $25 million to $35 million this year, CEO Doug Williams said.

—The traditional biotech business is “unsustainable” in the current downturn, accounting firm Ernst & Young declared in its annual report on the biotech industry, Beyond Borders. Digging deeper into the regional statistics, I found that some regional biotech clusters are holding up better under the pressure than others, and the numbers aren’t pretty for the Pacific Northwest.

—The same day of that grim report, Seattle biotech got a dose of some serious good news from Calistoga Pharmaceuticals. The developer of drugs for cancer and inflammation raised $30 million in a Series B venture round, which attracted all four investors that got the company going two years ago, including Seattle-based Frazier Healthcare Ventures.

—Even though the headlines say it’s nearly impossible, it’s still pretty easy to find scientific entrepreneurs pursuing biotech startup dreams around Seattle. One of these stories came out this week from Arrowsmith Technologies, a company with a novel idea for using antibodies to help improve treatment of brain cancer. Arrowsmith was founded by Jefferson Foote, a former scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

—Acucela, the Bothell, WA based maker of drugs for macular degeneration, passed an early safety test with a drug for the “dry” form of this disease that causes blindness in millions of elderly people. I got the rundown on what this means to the company, and to the field of ophthalmology, from founder and CEO Ryo Kubota, before he presented data at a scientific meeting.

—AVI Biopharma, the Portland, OR-based maker of RNA-based drugs, said it won part of a $2.5 million defense contract to develop a treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The company (NASDAQ: AVII) is hoping to cultivate relationships with the military for years to come, as it is angling for a more lucrative defense contract to make drugs to combat Ebola and Marburg viruses.

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