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Cell Therapeutics Shares Boom, Vulcan’s Breast Cancer Bombshell, Microsoft Buys Rosetta Assets, & More Seattle-Area Life Sciences News

Xconomy Seattle — 

Most of Seattle’s biotech news this week came out of Orlando, FL, where local companies vied for the attention of 30,000 cancer specialists at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting. The best clinical trial data I saw didn’t actually come from a Seattle-based company—but it had a strong local tie to Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital.

—A company founded by Vulcan and other venture capitalists in 2005, BiPar Sciences, captured the biggest headlines of this year’s ASCO. The BiPar drug, the first in a class of PARP inhibitors, helped shrink tumors, stop them from spreading, and keep patients living longer than a standard chemo regimen by itself. We had the scoop on May 22 that this drug was going to make waves at ASCO, and it didn’t disappoint. One researcher told Bloomberg News it was no less than a “bombshell” for the breast cancer field.

—Seattle-based Cell Therapeutics (NASDAQ: CTIC) saw its shares boom 47 percent in the last two hours of trading on Monday after it released some detailed results from a 140-patient trial of its lead lymphoma drug, pixantrone. The compound was able to completely shrink tumors in 20 percent of patients who were heavily pre-treated, compared with 5.7 percent who did that well in the control group [[Correction: A previous version said this group got a placebo–it was comparitor drug]]. But there were side effects, including a higher rate of severe cardiac disorders among patients who got the drug. Regardless, the company hopes to seize on the newfound demand for its shares by getting rid of its $118.9 million in debt.

Microsoft has been getting more serious about dipping its toe into the life sciences software market this year, and this week it took another important step by buying the assets of Rosetta Biosoftware from Merck. This deal gives Microsoft a profitable new division, a customer list of almost 100 names, and highly sophisticated software that would have taken at least three years to build in-house, a Microsoft executive says.

Carl Weissman, the CEO of Accelerator and a managing director with OVP Venture Partners, stirred the pot in the Xconomist Forum this week with a thoughtful and provocative editorial on why he thinks innovators should get perpetual ownership rights to drug patents. This sparked quite a few insightful comments—many of which say this is a bad idea.

—Bothell, WA-based OncoGenex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: OGXI) released some promising data at ASCO that showed its experimental prostate cancer drug, in combination with chemotherapy, was able to help men live a median time of about 7 months longer than men who got the chemo alone. It’s a small study of just 82 men, and needs to be verified in clinical trials of about 1,100 more patients, but Wall Street is raving. OncoGenex stock has shot up from about $2 before the first glimmer of data was released in December, to close at $20.65 yesterday.

—Bothell, WA-based Seattle Genetics (NASDAQ: SGEN) reported its SGN-35 drug had almost the same ability to shrink tumors when given once a week as when it is given every three weeks. More than one-third of Hodgkin’s disease patients had their tumors completely disappear when given the drug, even after they failed on numerous prior therapies, according to data presented at ASCO. These kind of results helped Seattle Genetics raise $55 million in January, and the company disclosed it recently completed an $11.5 million follow-on round.

—Seattle-based Trubion Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: TRBN) showed some preliminary data that its TRU-016 drug for chronic lymphocytic leukemia was able to kill about two-thirds of cancerous cells in the blood.

—Bothell, WA-based Alder Biopharmaceuticals isn’t looking to shrink tumors, but it has a novel idea for a drug that it thinks can improve cancer patients’ quality of life. Its ALD518 drug, which is made to block an inflammatory protein called IL-6, was found to reduce severe fatigue known as cancer cachexia in a preliminary study of nine patients. The drug is now being tested in a more rigorous trial of 124 patients.

Can the feds get into the biotech VC business? That’s an idea being pushed lately by former VizX Labs CEO Tom Ranken and Bob Wilcox, a local medical device entrepreneur. The concept, called Bionager, hopes to corral about $10 million in federal money to help take promising research through the notorious “Valley of Death” in early product development, so that companies can prove their concepts well enough to capture some private VC funding.

—One of the co-founders of an open source movement for biology, Eric Schadt of Merck’s Rosetta Inpharmatics division, is leaving Seattle. Schadt has taken the job as chief scientific officer of Menlo Park, CA-based Pacific Biosciences, a Kleiner Perkins-backed company aiming to develop a more powerful breed of gene-sequencing machines. This doesn’t sound good for Sage Bionetworks, the open source biology movement Schadt co-founded with Stephen Friend earlier this year, but he insists he’s going to continue consulting on that project one day a week.

—Seattle-based ZymoGenetics (NASDAQ: ZGEN) released some encouraging data from a small clinical trial of its IL-21 treatment in combination with Bayer and Onyx Pharmaceuticals’ sorafenib (Nexavar) in very sick patients with kidney cancer. The company is getting out of the cancer research business, so it’s shopping this program to potential partners.

Calistoga Pharmaceuticals, the Seattle-based company that raised $30 million in venture capital last month, captured more buzz than most private companies who yearn for attention at ASCO. The company is developing drugs that block one of the hot targets in cancer biology, the PI3 kinase. It had some encouraging data, showing that six of the first 12 patients with blood cancers in a clinical trial reported tumor shrinkage. It also benefitted from good timing, since a competitor, South San Francisco-based Exelixis, validated the field by scoring a partnership with Sanofi-Aventis potentially worth more than a $1 billion.