Vertex, Ariad, Alnylam, & More Boston-Area Life Sciences Newsmakers

12/16/11Follow @xconomy

New England saw a flurry of life sciences news this week, from venture firms, new startups, and established biotechs.

—Boston-based Avila Therapeutics presented data at the American Society of Hematology from early human trials of its lead cancer drug, AVL-292, which is on track to enter more extensive Phase 2 trials next year. This compound, a so-called covalent drug that bonds tightly to disease-causing proteins to shut down their activity over time, is targeting cancers such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

—Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY) could be onto something in the field of RNA interference, a technology that has fallen out of favor in the industry, my colleague Luke wrote. The Cambridge, MA-based biotech reported at a scientific meeting last month that one of its experimental RNAi drugs was able to shut down production of a protein that causes a rare and deadly disease called TTR amyloidosis.

ImmusanT, a new startup working on therapies for celiac disease, inked a $20 million Series A financing from Vatera Healthcare Partners. The Cambridge-based company is developing a vaccine and a diagnostic and monitoring test for the condition, which renders the protein gluten toxic in the body.

—Newton, MA-based AesRx kicked off human trials of its lead drug Aes-103, a treatment for sickle cell disease. A partnership formed with the National Institutes of Health helped the company get this far, after it struggled to raise venture funding.

—Boston-based Ember Therapeutics raised $34 million from Third Rock Ventures to develop drugs that fight obesity by burning off existing fat. It’s tapping into fresh understanding of brown fat, a bodily tissue that could help people burn off the more familiar white fat.

—Cambridge-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals promoted board member Jeff Leiden to the role of chief executive. Leiden, a managing director at Clarus Ventures in Boston, will replace current president and CEO Matt Emmens come Feb. 1. The move comes after a tumultuous year on Wall Street for Vertex (NASDAQ: VRTX) and a quickly shifting landscape for hepatitis C drugs, Vertex’s area of focus.

—Cerulean Pharma, a Cambridge-based maker of nanoparticle drugs, raised $15 million in Series D funding. The money came from its existing backers, Polaris Venture Partners, Venrock, Lilly Ventures, Lux Capital, and Bessemer Venture Partners, as well as new investor CVF, an affiliate of Henry Crown and Company.

Atlas Venture and Shire Pharmaceuticals announced a new multi-year collaboration to target investment opportunities in startups working on treatments for rare diseases. Shire’s team of scientists will conduct experiments that Cambridge-based Atlas would like to test, and both firms will invest in the deals.

—Ariad Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ARIA) is selling 21.5 million shares of its stock at $10.42 apiece. That comes to gross proceeds of more than $224 million for the Cambridge-based drugmaker. Underwriters of the deal got a 30-day option to purchase another 3.2 million shares.

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