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Biotech Roundup: Obamacare Lite, DePinho Out, Dunsire In & More

Xconomy National — 

We’ll start the roundup in Washington DC. The repeal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, began on the first day of the Trump administration. This week, the “replace” phase began with a Republican plan championed by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). President Trump backed it, too, but a lot of Republicans have come out against it for not being, well, enough of a replacement. (“Obamacare Lite” is one charge against it.) On the left, critics charge it will strip health coverage from the poor and give tax breaks to the rich. The bill nonetheless was approved by two House committees and progressed forward.

The replacement plan does not, however, address the drug-price debate centered around Medicare negotiation. Could President Donald Trump’s campaign-trail promises and Oval Office tweets that have seemed favorable to negotiation materialize into new policies? Congressional Democrats certainly hope so, and two House members presented Trump with a plan this week. They told reporters after the meeting that the president seemed receptive. We’ll soon see whether that’s just bluster or a sign of change to come. In the meantime let’s take a U.S. road trip and get to the rest of the week’s biotech headlines.

L.A. STORY

Stat reported Monday that one of the several cancer-focused companies owned by Patrick Soon-Shiong benefited from a $12 million donation that Soon-Shiong’s foundation gave to the University of Utah. The report said most of the cash came back to NantHealth (NASDAQ: NH) in the form of a contract to do sequencing work. Soon-Shiong told the Los Angeles Times that the Stat report was “maliciously false.” He is vice chair and the second largest shareholder of the Times’s parent company Tronc.

BOSTON MOVES

—Ten months after leaving the now-shuttered Forum Pharmaceuticals, Deborah Dunsire re-emerged as CEO of Waltham, MA-based XTuit Pharmaceuticals. It’s the first time the former head of Millennium Pharmaceuticals has run a small biotech startup.

—Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX) bought CTP-656, an experimental Phase 2 drug from Concert Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CNCE), for $160 million, heading off what could have become competition to Vertex’s cystic fibrosis business. Concert could earn another $90 million should the drug reach the market in the U.S. and Europe.

—Google’s venture arm led a $51.7 million Series C investment round for Spero Therapeutics, a Cambridge, MA-based biotech developing new antibiotics to fight drug-resistant bacteria.

TEXAS TURNOVER

—Ron DePinho, who has run Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center for six years, announced his resignation in an emotional video address. The news comes soon after DePinho’s wife, Lydia Chin, was singled out in a state audit of the financial missteps around a cancer research project using IBM’s artificial intelligence system Watson. Chin oversaw the project at Anderson before she moved to a different UT System position in 2015.

—Robert Robbins, the CEO of the Texas Medical Center, was named the next president of the University of Arizona. He had led the TMC, also in Houston, for more than four years and oversaw the center’s expansion of local biotech entrepreneurship.

—Thomas Lynch, the chairman and CEO of the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization, was named the new executive vice president and chief scientific officer of Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY), replacing the retiring Francis Cuss. The move comes a time when Bristol has lost ground to rival Merck in a battle for leadership in cancer immunotherapy.

EYES ON FDA

—U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said on a radio show that the administration’s pick for FDA commissioner should be announced soon.

—-Clinical holds placed last December on the Seattle Genetics (NASDAQ: SGEN) leukemia drug vadastuximab talirine following four patient deaths were lifted this week after the Bothell, WA-based biotech made changes to the trials to “enhance patient safety.”

— PTC Therapeutics (NASDAQ: PTCT) is seeking FDA approval of its drug ataluren (Translarna) for Duchenne muscular dystrophy “over protest” of the agency. Ataluren has already failed three clinical trials and twice been denied an FDA review. RBC Capital Markets analyst Simos Simeonidis wrote that PTC has “very little chance” of success. The FDA will decide on ataluren by Oct. 24.

DEALS & RUMORS

—A proxy fight at Immunomedics (NASDAQ: IMMU) shifted control of the Morris Plains, NJ-based biotech’s board to directors backed by investment firm venBio. The firm criticized the deal Immunomedics management struck to license the company’s lead cancer drug to Seattle Genetics. On Thursday, a Delaware judge halted the transaction.

Reuters reported that Novo Nordisk has expressed interest in acquiring South San Francisco, CA-based Global Blood Therapeutics (NASDAQ: GBT).

—Durham, NC-based cancer immunotherapy developer Heat Biologics (NASDAQ: HTBX) used stock to acquire an 80 percent stake in Austin, TX-based Pelican Therapeutics, whose lead drug candidate has the potential to work in combination with Heat’s own experimental treatment.

AND LASTLY..

—The Patent Trials and Appeal Board upheld four patents covering Acorda Therapeutics’s (NASDAQ: ACOR) multiple sclerosis drug dalfampridine (Ampyra) that had been challenged by hedge fund manager Kyle Bass. Shares climbed about 6.5 percent.

—Virta Health revealed clinical results for its health IT app developed to treat diabetes.

—Shares of New York-based TG Therapeutics (NASDAQ: TGTX) nearly doubled after it touted success in a Phase 3 trial combining its blood cancer drug, ublituximab, with ibrutinib (Imbruvica) in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Alex Lash and Frank Vinluan contributed to this report