Harvard Researcher to Helm Merck’s Cancer Research, Genzyme Acquires Certain Exact Sciences Assets, NeurAxon Out to Axe Migraines, & More Boston-Area Life Sciences

2/4/09

New England life sciences firms gave us a little breather on the fast-breaking news this past week, so we had some time to take a closer look at some of the most interesting new companies and projects in the field.

—Luke interviewed Tom Hughes, the CEO of Zafgen, and learned more about the startup’s plans for developing drugs that fight obesity by blocking the blood supply to fatty tissue. The next day, the Cambridge, MA-based firm, which is backed by Atlas Venture and Third Rock Ventures, announced it had inked a deal with a U.K. contract research firm called Argenta Discovery, which will aid in the development of one such drug.

—Cambridge, MA-based Genzyme (NASDAQ:GENZ) agreed to pay $24.5 million for diagnostic maker Exact Sciences’ assets related to prenatal and reproductive health. In response, San Diego-based Sequenom (NASDAQ:SQNM) dropped its bid to acquire Marlborough, MA-based Exact (NASDAQ:EXAS) in an all-stock deal valued at $41 million.

—Another diagnostics maker, TheraGenetics of Cambridge, MA, and London, agreed to be acquired by UK-based Avacta Group for an undisclosed amount of cash and stock. TheraGenetics is developing tests to help predict a patient’s response to drugs for a number of neurological and psychiatric conditions.

Dicerna Pharmaceuticals CEO Jim Jenson told Luke about his Watertown, MA-based company’s plans to find a “second doorway” into the development of drugs based on the gene-silencing technique RNA interference. By using slightly longer RNA molecules, he said, the company plans to make drugs that are more potent, longer-acting, and more customizable.

—Luke profiled NeurAxon, a startup in Waltham, MA, that’s out to stop migraine pain before it starts. This year will be a critical one for determining the efficacy of NeurAxon’s lead drug candidate, a pill that combines a triptan, a standard migraine medication, with a molecule that blocks nNOS, and enzyme involved in pain sensation.

—Lexington, MA-based cancer-drug developer Synta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: SNTA) finished enrolling 630 patients in a clinical trial of its lead product candidate for melanoma that has spread through the body, and said it plans to unveils results from the study in May.

—Life sciences equipment maker Millipore (NYSE: MIL) of Billerica, MA, announced an agreement to acquire Hayward, CA-based Guava Technologies, a maker of cell-sorting and other testing devices—for $22.6 million.

—Pharmaceutical giant Merck tapped renowned Harvard cancer researcher D. Gary Gilliland to head Merck Research Labs, the Boston outpost where Merck is consolidating its oncology research operations. Gilliland will replace Stephen Friend in the role.

—Molecular Insight Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:MIPI) announced a host of leadership changes, including dropping “interim” from CEO John Babich’s title. Babich has helmed the Cambridge, MA-based firm since September 2008, replacing former CEO David Barlow, who also resigned from the Molecular Insight’s board last month.

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