East Coast Life Sciences Roundup: Thermo, Alkermes, Acorda, Epizyme

4/19/13Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

One big story—the Boston Marathon bombing—dominated the news this week. Boston’s healthcare system rose to the challenge of treating so many injured victims, as reported in this terrific post by Atul Gawande of the New Yorker. While the investigation into the tragedy continues, many East Coast biotech companies carried on with their business and accomplished some big things.

—Xconomy Deputy Editor Gregory T. Huang wrote about the region’s technology firms that are helping to track down those responsible for the Marathon bombing, prevent future incidents, and give hope to the many victims who were severely injured. Hugh Herr, founder of the Bedford, MA-based prosthetics company iWalk, whose lower legs were amputated after a 1982 accident, said current technology can go far to restore mobility to people who lost legs in the attack.

—Waltham, MA-based Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO) said Monday it has agreed to pay $13.6 billion to acquire Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE), a profitable biotechnology research and diagnostics company based in Carlsbad, CA. Thermo Fisher said the purchase of Life Technologies, which reported sales of $3.8 billion in 2012, will immediately bolster its earnings per share. Life Technologies will contribute a next-generation gene sequencing capability to the combined business in laboratory equipment and supplies, just as new opportunities are arising in genomics research and molecular diagnostics.

Alkermes (NASDAQ: ALKS) enjoyed a 16 percent jump in its share price Wednesday after it announced positive results in a mid-stage trial of its daily pill for major depressive disorder. The Dublin, Ireland and Waltham, MA-based company is reserving full details of the trial data for a physicians’ meeting in late May. But Alkermes said the experimental drug, ALKS 5461, was linked to a statistically significant reduction of symptoms and met the Phase 2 trial’s main goal: to show improvement on a test called the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale.

—Hawthorne, NY-based biotech Acorda Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ACOR) saw its valuation climb after releasing preliminary trial results this week. Acorda, whose drug dalfampridine (Ampyra) was approved by the FDA three years ago to improve walking in patients with multiple sclerosis, said dalfampridine also improved walking ability among trial participants recovering from ischemic strokes caused by clots that block blood flow to the brain. If further testing proves out, the new indication could boost revenues for dalfampridine, which brought in $266.1 million in 2012. Acorda’s shares climbed 12.6 percent Monday and continued to rise during the week, closing up 23.7 percent Thursday at $39.

—Cambridge, MA-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX) also saw a big run-up in its market valuation this week, on the strength of a mid-stage clinical trial testing a combination of drugs for the most common form of cystic fibrosis. The company’s shares shot up more than 50 percent in after-hours trading Thursday after it said a combo of the experimental drug VX-661 and ivacaftor (Kalydeco) was able to improve lung function by as much as 9 percent in a 28-day study of patients with two mutated copies of the F508del gene. About half of the 30,000 U.S. patients with cystic fibrosis are thought to have two bad copies of the F508del gene. That means Vertex could have a very big market opportunity if it can replicate this result in the third and final phase of clinical trials normally required for FDA approval.

—Cambridge, MA-based Sage Therapeutics drew encouragement from a single patient’s response to its experimental drug SGE-102, and has re-focused its development efforts on the form of epilepsy afflicting that patient. Sage, backed by Third Rock Ventures, had originally seen its drug candidates as potential treatments for common central nervous system disorders such as schizophrenia. But as the company announced this month, SGE-102 apparently allowed a patient to emerge safely from a coma induced by doctors to protect him from life-threatening seizures caused by a condition called status epilepticus. Sage interim CEO and Third Rock partner Kevin Starr says the company’s tentative plan is to begin a small clinical trial in that form of epilepsy.

Epizyme of Cambridge, MA filed plans Thursday to raise $69 million through an initial public offering. Epizyme is developing experimental cancer drugs by focusing on epigenetics—a term for the influence of proteins and other factors that interact with DNA and regulate gene expression without changing the actual sequence of genes. In its SEC filing, Epizyme said it has created experimental small molecule drugs that inhibit a class of enzymes, histone methyl transferases, that can cause abnormal gene expression linked to cancer. Epizyme has already scored partnerships with Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), Japan-based Eisai Pharmaceuticals, and London-based GlaxoSmithKline.

—The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Engineering in Medicine and its research collaborator Veridex of Raritan, NJ, a diagnostics division of Johnson & Johnson, have been basking in media attention over their third-generation device to capture tumor cells that circulate in the blood—a so-called “liquid biopsy.” The hope is that these captured cells may reveal a host of clues about individual patients’ tumors, and can therefore guide the choice of treatments over time. The partners are developing the microfluidics-based system called the CTC-iChip as a diagnostic tool they hope could some day become part of routine oncology testing. But commercializing such a tumor cell testing system proved too challenging for now-defunct Waltham, MA-based On-Q-ity, which is selling off the last of its assets this month, financial backer Bruce Booth of Atlas Venture said in a blogpost.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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  • Jim Rourke

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