East Coast Life Sciences Roundup: Vertex, Thermedical, More

11/2/12Follow @cathyarnst

There were signs of progress this week for a few East Coast life sciences company as they strived to develop new drugs and devices, except for Aveo, which is pulling back on R&D to throw most of its resources behind its lead product.

Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX) scored some big-name development partners this week for its effort to come up with an oral combination treatment for hepatitis C that can replace its market-leading drug telaprevir (Incivek). Although telaprevir was only approved in May 2011, the drug was upstaged less than a year later by news of oral drugs for the disease. On Thursday the Cambridge, MA-based company announced separate partnerships with Johnson & Johnson  (NYSE: JNJ) and GlaxoSmithkline  (NYSE: GSK) to conduct Phase II clinical trials of its experimental drug VX-135, acquired last year from Alios BioPharma  of South San Francisco, CA. Vertex is already behind Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) and Abbot (NYSE: ABT) in the race to come up with an oral hepatitis C drug. Vertex said the VX-135 trials are due to start next year and Vertex will split the development costs with its new partners.

—Meanwhile, fifteen years after its founding, Thermedical  hit a major milestone on Wednesday: the Food & Drug Administration cleared its first product, a device that uses radiofrequency waves to destroy soft tissue during laparoscopic and other types of surgical procedures. The Waltham, MA-based company’s president and founder, Michael Curley, said in a statement that the FDA clearance will allow Thermedical to evaluate the device for the treatment of malignant tumors, starting with liver cancer. Thermedical’s technology is based on research at MIT’s Hyperthermia Center, and the company has survived on multiple National Institutes of Health grants and a $15 million Series A investment in March from private investor Samuel Maslak.

Tris Pharma has spent almost as many years as Thermedical developing its technology, which turns pills into long acting liquids. CEO Ketan Mehta talked to me about the validation the company’s efforts received when Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) recently agreed to pay up to $700 million to acquire NextWave Pharmaceuticals  and its liquid drug for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, jointly developed with Tris. Mehta started the company in 2000 with his own money—no outside investors—because he wanted to address the inability of many people to swallow pills. No one was working on a solution for this significant unmet need when Tris started, he said. The company is now working on a chewable version of the ADHD drug for Pfizer, and Mehta has his eye on developing liquid versions of pain medications, which he says would be harder to abuse than pills.

—The news was much less rosy at beleaguered Aveo Oncology (NASDAQ: AVEO. The Cambridge, MA, company announced it is laying off 45 people—17 percent of its workforce—and leaving another 30 open positions unfilled. Most of those cutbacks are in research and development, as Aveo tries to conserve resources while it waits for an FDA ruling on its kidney cancer drug, tivozanib. The drug is under a cloud after the results of a clinical trial in August revealed that it may not increase survival by as much as sorafenib (Nexavar), already on the market. In a call with investors on Tuesday, Aveo CEO Tuan Ha-Ngoc said that the restructuring will leave about 80 percent of Aveo’s resources dedicated to supporting “the anticipated approval and planned commercial launch” of tivozanib.

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