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East Coast Biotech Roundup: Varmus, Bristol, Aerie, Aura & More

Xconomy Boston — 

Big news in the oncology world this week, with much of the action on the East Coast. The National Cancer Institute’s director is stepping down—and heading back to New York. The first so-called “checkpoint” inhibitor was approved for lung cancer. And one of the biggest biotech deals ever was made around a single cancer drug. Those stories and much more in a jam-packed roundup below. Let’s get right to it.

—A week after its deal with Flexus Biosciences, New York-based Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) was back at it again this week. First it paid Bavarian Nordic $60 million for an option to license the company’s experimental prostate cancer immunotherapy, ProstVac; Then, the FDA approved Bristol-Myers’s checkpoint inhibitor nivolumab (Opdivo) for lung cancer. It’s the first PD-1 inhibitor approved for lung cancer, and it was a speedy decision given more than three months ahead of schedule.

—National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus said this week he is stepping down at the end of March—and returning to his roots in the Big Apple. Varmus, who grew up in New York and was the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for a decade, said in his resignation letter that he will establish a “modestly sized research laboratory” at Weill Cornell Medical College, be a senior advisor to the school’s dean, and “assist” the New York Genome Center once he leaves the NCI.

—Glaucoma is a $5 billion market, despite being littered with generics. And Bedminster, NJ-based Aerie Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AERI) has a chance to shake up the field this year, depending on the type of news it gets from a series of Phase 3 trials. I took an in-depth look at Aerie’s prospects, and spoke with CEO Vicente Anido, Jr. about what lies ahead.

—New Brunswick, NJ-based Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) was reportedly on the verge of acquiring Pharmacyclics before AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) swooped in and topped it with a last-minute $21 billion bid, the Financial Times reported.

—Cambridge, MA-based Aura Biosciences raised $21 million in venture cash this week from a group of investors including former Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer. As CEO Elisabet de los Pinos told me, the funding helps Aura make a strategic pivot towards treating rare eye cancers with its viral nanoparticle technology.

—Newton, MA-based Macrolide Pharmaceuticals emerged from stealth this week with $22 million in backing from the venture arms of three pharmaceutical companies—Roche, Novartis, and GlaxoSmithKline—and VC firm Gurnet Point Capital. The company, founded by Lawrence Miller and Harvard University chemist Andrew Myers (who teamed to form Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: TTPH) several years ago), has developed a method to engineer synthetic macrolides, a type of antibiotic drug, from scratch.

—Former Alnylam Pharmaceuticals chief business officer Laurence Reid this week was named the new CEO of Cambridge-based Warp Drive Bio. Reid takes over the role from Gregory Verdine, who gave up a tenured position at Harvard last year to work at Warp Drive full-time. Verdine has shifted roles to work as president, chief scientific officer, and chairman of Warp Drive’s scientific advisory board.

—-Cambridge-based Blueprint Medicines inked its first partnership this week when it cut a deal worth up to $265 million with Alexion Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALXN), of Cheshire, CT. The two companies will work together to co-develop and sell drug candidates aimed at an unspecified kinase target that causes an unnamed genetic disease.

—-Amgen stopped developing a drug called AMG-714 several years ago. Now a startup in Lebanon, NJ, called Celimmune wants to revive it. Celimmune licensed the drug from Amgen this week with a plan to see if it might have promise treating celiac disease. Amgen has an option to buy it back if Celimmune is successful. I spoke with Celimmune’s founders, Francisco Leon and Ashleigh Palmer, about the venture.

—Cambridge-based Mersana Therapeutics raised a $35 million funding round this week from New Enterprise Associates, Rock Springs Capital Management, Elliott Sigal (Bristol-Myers’s former R&D chief), Pfizer Ventures, and Fidelity Biosciences. The company, which is developing drugs based on a proprietary antibody-drug conjugate technology, also named former Millennium Pharmaceuticals president Anna Protopapas its new president and CEO.

—Marlborough, MA-based Boston Scientific (NYSE: BSX) paid $1.6 billion for Endo International’s (NASDAQW: ENDP) medical device unit, American Medical Systems, which makes a portfolio of products for pelvic disorders.

—Broadview Ventures put $1 million into Rensselaer, NY-based startup Pulmokine to bring the company’s lead drug, an inhalable treatment for pulmonary arterial hypertension, into a Phase 1 clinical trial. It’ll file papers with the FDA later this year to begin that study.

—In case you missed it, there’s about a week left before our March 12 biotech bash, “New York’s Life Science Disruptors.” I’ve outlined some of the speakers and content you can expect to see here.

—Waltham, MA-based Tesaro (NASDAQ: TSRO) raised $173.4 million by selling 3.4 million shares at $51 apiece.