Innovation Northwest Wrapup: Alder, Tekmira, Acucela, & Other Emerging Little Biotechs

The best reporters are always gathering string, as we like to say in the journalism trade. It means we gather lots of facts and observations in our notebooks, which might not be news at first glance, but can become part of a contextual mosaic that we can rely on later when news breaks. There wasn’t much in the way of big news at this year’s Life Science Innovation Northwest conference in Seattle, but I gathered a lot of string. Here are some of my observations.

Alder Biopharmaceuticals has kept a low profile for its first five years in business, but it has vaulted to near the top of the watch list for Seattle biotech in 2010. Mark your calendars for June 16-19, for the European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) meeting in Rome. That’s when CEO Randy Schatzman said Alder is planning to present the long-awaited data from a 120-patient study of rheumatoid arthritis patients who were randomly assigned to get the company’s ALD518 antibody drug, or a placebo. This is the study that prompted Bristol-Myers Squibb to pay $85 million upfront, plus $1 billion worth of potential milestones, to form a partnership with Alder last November.

Alder hasn’t disclosed the data, but Schatzman has said the results appear compelling enough to give the multi-billion-dollar drugs from Amgen and Abbott Laboratories a “run for their money.”

Something like 2 million people in the U.S. suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, so this is a big market. But the Alder data could also be scientifically eye-opening. ALD518 hits a different inflammatory protein, IL-6, than the one Amgen and Abbott block, called TNF. When the full data comes out, Schatzman, a scientist by training, predicts this will change how physicians look at rheumatoid arthritis. “IL-6 is the true villain during the disease process in rheumatoid arthritis,” Schatzman said.

Incidentally, at a panel discussion at Innovation Northwest, Schatzman talked about how the Bristol deal has changed the perception of his company in Big Pharma land. “The phone started ringing,” Schatzman said. “We had already talked to everybody on the planet, but when we did the deal, it said that a Big Pharma had validated us. People said, ‘Gee, there might be something real to that. Let’s check back in.'”

Randy Schatzman

Randy Schatzman

Analyst Mark Monane, of Needham & Company in New York, said he was impressed by Alder. He was especially interested in the use of ALD518 for another use, cancer cachexia, in which cancer patients suffer from extreme fatigue caused by excess inflammation. Alder has shown some preliminary results that suggest its drug can help tamp down the inflammation and improve quality of life for cancer patients, which is measured by showing they can gain instead of lose weight.

“Cancer cachexia is a real problem,” Monane says. “We focus a lot on drugs that kill tumors, but not as much on actually helping the patient. This is something that can help the patient, and you can get an answer on that relatively quickly.”

—Vancouver, BC-based Tekmira Pharmaceuticals had some good news to share about its lipid-nanoparticle system for delivering RNA interference drugs. Delivery is the No. 1 challenge in this hot field of medical research, and Tekmira said this week … Next Page »

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