Scandal, Swine Flu, Shareholder Disputes, and More: 2009 Was Quite a Year for San Diego’s Life Sciences Industry

12/22/09

Covering the life sciences in San Diego is never dull, and the news flow last year provided plenty of drama. What follows are some highlights from the past year:

— Embattled tools company Sequenom (NASDAQ: SQNM) scuttled the debut of a non-invasive prenatal Down syndrome test amid a data-mishandling scandal. CEO Harry Stylli was fired along with four other employees. Two others, including CFO Paul Hawran, resigned. The future of the diagnostic test is now in doubt and in November the company, which was being investigated by the SEC and FBI, said it was taking steps to conserve cash to improve its odds of survival.

—Dissident shareholders billionaire Carl Icahn and Eastbourne Capital won two of five board seats in a proxy fight that centered on San Diego-based Amylin Pharmaceuticals’ (NASDAQ: AMLN) strategic management of its strong-selling diabetes drug exenatide (Byetta). Months after its partial victory, Eastbourne sold its entire Amylin stake—after Eastbourne founder Rick Barry voiced some frustration over Amylin’s slow pace of change. Since then, the company struck an important deal to co-develop weight-loss drugs with Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

—The spread of swine flu provided a fleeting business opportunity to companies working on diagnostic equipment or novel vaccines. Quidel (NASDAQ: QDEL) reported a surge in sales driven by purchases of its rapid flu test and Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE) saw a bump in revenue from sales to public health laboratories of equipment and reagents for swine flu testing. Funding from the Navy enabled Vical (NASDAQ: VICL) to conduct pre-clinical studies of an experimental swine flu vaccine, but the company has not received the added support needed to conduct a human test.

San Diego’s emergence as a center for algae-based biofuels came into view during the Algae Biomass Summit in October. Two of the most closely watched algae biofuels companies are here: Sapphire Energy, which is backed by billionaire Bill Gates, and Synthetic Genomics, whose partner, ExxonMobil, announced plans in July to invest $600 million investment in algae-derived biofuels. They and other start-ups are taking advantage of the rich pool of biotechnology talent here. Still, there is no denying it’s early days, and the technology needs to prove itself.

—Biotechs Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ARNA) and Orexigen Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OREX) continued their race for the next blockbuster obesity drug. The companies have released clinical trial results showing their experimental diet pills may work well enough to receive FDA approval, but it could be a year or more before the drugs reach the market. The San Diego biotechs have more to worry about than each other: Vivus (NASDAQ: VVUS) of Mountain View, CA is working on a weight-loss pill that could reach consumers around the same time.

—Seeking a quicker path to FDA approval, some life sciences startups have been reformulating or repositioning existing medications. But the strategy seems to have failed Soxamon Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: SOMX), which unsuccessfully sought to market a pill containing the antidepressant doxepin as an insomnia drug. Another company pursuing this strategy, Cadence Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CADX), recently announced that its intravenous pain reliever containing acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, ran into regulatory delays. The jury is still out on Avanir Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AVNR), a former San Diego company (now located in Orange County, CA) that is combining two existing drugs into a pill to control emotional outbursts in patients with specific neurological conditions.

—The genetic tools industry appears to have entered a period of transformation. Companies are consolidating, broadening their intellectual property and market share, and papering rivals with patent infringement suits. Tools titans Life Technologies and Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) are suing each other over alleged patent violations. Illumina also is suing Affymetrix of Santa Clara, CA. Meanwhile, companies continued to extend the potential markets and amass IP. Illumina acquired certain rights to forensic and diagnostic technology from Orchid Cellmark, and Life Technologies snapped up BioTrove, a Massachusetts-based provider of lab instruments.

—2009 witnessed the slow disappearance of some familiar companies as the troubled economy and scientific setbacks conspired to drive them out of business or into the arms of competitors. The list includes La Jolla Pharmaceutical, TorreyPines Therapeutics, Metabasis Therapeutics, and Nanogen. In addition, at least 700 jobs were lost at these and other life sciences companies during the first half of 2009.

—Some of San Diego’s research renowned institutions took visible steps toward translating their cutting-edge research into drugs. The Burnham Institute for Medical Research formed an institution-wide partnership with Johnson & Johnson, and made some key high-level hires to foster translational research. The Scripps Research Institute, meanwhile, brought in a new tech transfer boss charged with doing more to spin research out into start-up companies that may one day commercialize Scripps discoveries.

So there you have our compilation of the top nine developments in San Diego’s life sciences sector last year. Think we’ve missed something? Please take a moment to add your contribution below, and help round out the top 10.

Denise Gellene is a former Los Angeles Times science writer and regular contributor to Xconomy. You can reach her at dgellene@xconomy.com Follow @

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