Wednesday, November 23, 2011
We won't be gnawing turkey legs with her tomorrow, so we want to give our thanks today to Ellen Licking, our friend and colleague, who is moving on to work for our former boss. (You can follow her odyssey tweet by tweet at @RealEndptsEllen when it goes live.)
Ellen has been one of many colleagues from whom we learn every day; we're thankful for those generous with their knowledge, and we're thankful for being able to write about an industry filled with folks who, once past the elevator pitch and into a more expansive mood, just might blow your mind. When we were young, Mama FOTF told us, "Try to learn something new every day." No better way than to be a journalist. Folks in our profession have many and various reasons for doing what they do, not all of them savory, but for us, being able to talk regularly with brilliant people working on fascinating, often intractable problems is a main reason we get out of bed in the morning. (Oatmeal with walnuts and brown sugar is another.) We're also thankful that we can say, "I don't understand, please explain," and on the whole people are happy to do so.
We're thankful for a few days off, and to spend those days with family, which the people we write about sometimes don't have time to do. Please do so; as we all learned this week, life can play cruel tricks. We wish everyone a happy, healthy and safe Thanksgiving.
Agios Pharmaceuticals: Agios has plenty to be thankful for. Nowhere close to having a compound in the clinic, the Cambridge, Mass. firm closed a Series C financing on Nov. 17, bringing in $78 million to help fund new research in rare genetic disorders. Agios CEO David Schenkein said the money would help fund the company’s research for the next “three to four years” and that it will allow the pre-clinical company to bring “multiple programs into the clinic simultaneously.” The cancer metabolism firm was backed by previous investors Third Rock Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, and Flagship Ventures, along with Celgene and three undisclosed public investment funds. Agios previously raised $33 million in a Series A and struck a lucrative deal with Celgene for its pre-clinical cancer metabolism research in April 2010. The deal included a $130 million upfront and gives Celgene the exclusive option to any products that result from the platform. The deal included a modest equity investment. Celgene extended the deal in October 2011, providing Agios with a $20 million payment and gaining further equity in the company. The new research program will focus on diseases caused by inborn errors in metabolism and will give Agios some distance from its partner, Celgene. The close relationship was exactly why Schenkein decided to gauge the interest from public investors and begin research in an area outside cancer metabolism. Prior to the recent round of financing and the new research platform, Agios was so closely tied to Celgene that it cut off any chance that it could be bought by another company. -- Lisa LaMotta
Idenix Pharmaceuticals: Now that Hepatitis C competitor Pharmasset has been snapped up for a stunning $11 billion by Gilead Sciences, Idenix is one of two firms remaining with unpartnered nucleotide polymerase inhibitors, or "nucs," in the clinic to treat HCV. The firm raised needed cash in a registered public offering of its stock Nov. 21, selling 9.4 million shares at $6.50 a piece, but its timing was unfortunate; since the Pharmasset news, Idenix shares have traded nearly a dollar higher (they're were at $7.45 in mid-day trading Nov. 23). The clinical-stage biotech, which is focused on developing oral, direct-acting antiviral drugs for Hepatitis C, lately has placed its bets mainly on Phase II nucleotide polymerase inhibitor IDX184. Even before the Pharmasset announcement, Wedbush Securities analyst Duane Nash wrote Nov. 15 that Idenix itself could be ripe for a merger or acquisition, as it and Inhibitex own the only unpartnered nucs in the clinic, and virtually every player in HCV believes such a compound will be part of the next HCV standard of care. Meanwhile, Idenix has suspended development of its other Phase II asset, IDX375, a non-nucleoside polymerase inhibitor, also for HCV. During its quarterly earnings call Nov. 2, the Cambridge, Mass. firm reported $64.7 million cash on hand as of Sept. 30 and a nine-month net loss of $33.9 million, attributable mainly to R&D spend. The biotech noted its net loss was $11.5 million lower than a year earlier, due in part to the shelving of ‘375. -- Joseph Haas
Oxyrane UK: In a bid to trump Shire and Genzyme at their own rare diseases game, British biotech Oxyrane on Nov. 17 pulled in $26.5 million in a D round led by Morningside Group, with participation from Forbion Capital Partners and existing investor New Science Ventures. The round hardly wins any records for size, but the idea’s nice: to create enzyme replacement therapies (ERT) for orphan diseases that are more effective, and cheaper and easier to manufacture, than current ERT drugs like Genzyme’s Cerezyme (imiglucerase). The funds will be used to advance a pre-clinical ERT candidate in Pompe’s disease, and to validate Oxyrane’s technology platform, which uses the Yarrowia lipolytica yeast to produce human lysosomal enzymes that are taken up faster by cells, and are more targeted, than existing commercially-available versions. Relatively simple batch production processes may also allow Oxyrane to scale up manufacturing so as to “dramatically alter” production economics, according to investors. It wasn’t just the prospect of cheaper ERTs that pulled investors in. Oxyrane’s technology could have far broader application, for instance, in more efficient antibody production. That opens the door to future partnering deals with companies looking for large-scale antibody production capability, or with those trying to create cheaper biosimilars. -- Melanie Senior
Portola Pharmaceuticals: It’s tough to partner an anticoagulant these days, thanks to an increasingly crowded market that already includes Bayer and Johnson & Johnson’s Xarelto (rivaroxaban) and Boehringer Ingelheim’s Pradaxa (dabigatran), and which may soon feature Bristol-Myers Squibb and Pfizer’s Eliquis (apixaban). Case in point: Astellas Pharma gave up on Phase II candidate darexaban in September after failing to find a partner. Portola Pharmaceuticals could have been in the same boat after its two-year arrangement with Merck concerning Factor Xa inhibitor betrixaban fell apart in March, but instead the eight-year-old company has turned to private investors yet again, securing $89 million in new Series D funding that will give it enough cash to launch a Phase III trial on its own. Portola will also bring a companion Factor Xa antidote into the clinic. The new money brings the total invested in the company to $306 million, not counting a $9 million equity investment from Biogen Idec last month in connection with a partnership for spleen tyrosine kinase inhibitors; the company also has received non-dilutive money from Novartis for its 2009 elinogel partnership, as well as $36 million from Biogen and Merck’s $50 million up-front payment from the since-scuttled deal. Eastern Capital of the Cayman Islands and Temasek Holdings of Singapore led Portola’s new round, which also included longtime VC backers Frazier Healthcare Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures, Alta Partners, MPM Capital, Prospect Venture Partners, Clarus Ventures and Sutter Hill Ventures. -- Paul Bonanos
Photo courtesy of flickr user Sugar Daze via a Creative Commons license.