West Coast Biotech Roundup: Mapp Bio, Calico, Alder, VentiRx & More

9/4/14Follow @alexlash

The past seven days have seen breakthroughs and heartbreaks for West Coast biotech companies. Mapp Biopharmaceutical of San Diego got promising preclinical news about its Ebola drug, then almost immediately got millions of dollars of federal funding to push it quickly into human trials. Up the coast near San Francisco, though, Exelixis’s flagship product returned such bad clinical news in prostate cancer that the biotech let go 70 percent of its staff.

There was a breakthrough therapy designation in San Diego: the FDA gave its coveted nod for expedited development and review to primavanserin, Acadia Pharmaceuticals’ treatment for Parkinson’s disease psychosis. And there was a breakup in Seattle: Bristol-Myers Squibb ended its development relationship with Alder Biopharmaceuticals. A lot more news has broken since our previous West Coast roundup. Let us, ahem, break it down for you.

—As our San Diego editor Bruce Bigelow reported Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded a contract worth up to $42.3 million to help Mapp Biopharmaceutical speed the development of ZMapp, an experimental drug used to treat seven healthcare workers in West Africa, five of whom have survived so far. The contract, issued by the health agency’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development authority, supports an accelerated development program for ZMapp, with a goal of winning FDA approval. The contract comes just days after Mapp scientists and others published a paper in Nature that showed ZMapp in preclinical testing protected all 18 monkeys given the drug after being infected with a strain of Ebola different than the one responsible for the current epidemic in West Africa. ZMapp has not yet been clinically tested in humans.

—The mysterious Calico has revealed its ambitions to at least one group of people. The biotech startup, backed by Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and run by all-star management, said Wednesday it would partner with drug maker AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) on treatments for age-related diseases such as neurodegeneration and cancer. The deal could ultimately include $1.5 billion in total cash coming from both parties and will help Calico build an R&D facility in the San Francisco Bay Area. Calico will begin hiring people “immediately,” it said. Each company will start by contributing $250 million, and another $500 million apiece could come later, although they didn’t say Wednesday what would trigger the additional cash. The companies said in a release that Calico will do the early research, discovery, and clinical work through Phase 2a before handing development duties off to AbbVie. Former Genentech CEO Art Levinson, who is running Calico, resigned from Roche’s board of directors less than 24 hours after the announcement. Levinson worked at Genentech for more than 20 years, starting out in 1980 as a research scientist before climbing through the ranks.

—Seattle-based VentiRx Pharmaceuticals has had a busy week. It announced Tuesday a new round of funding—amount undisclosed—from its venture backers and Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), the Summit, NJ-based drug maker that holds an option to acquire VentiRx. The option stems from a 2012 deal in which Celgene paid $35 million upfront to provide support for VentiRx’s cancer immunotherapy motolimod in trials for ovarian and head-and-neck cancer. The drug is currently in Phase 2 trials in each indication. VentiRx also said Motolimod has received fast-track designation from the FDA in the ovarian cancer setting in combination with the chemotherapy doxorubicin. Xconomy reported recently that VentiRx CEO Rob Hershberg was tapped to run Celgene’s new Seattle “Immuno-Oncology Center of Excellence.” VentiRx reiterated this week that Hershberg will split his time between VentiRx and the Celgene center, and that Katie Fanning has been promoted from VP of business development and alliance management to chief operating officer. VentiRx also announced that motolimod will be tested in combination with other immunotherapy agents by two New York-based nonprofits, Ludwig Cancer Research and the Cancer Research Institute.

—Acadia Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ACAD) of San Diego said the FDA gave “breakthrough therapy” designation to primavanserin (Nuplazid) for treating Parkinson’s disease psychosis. The company, which develops drugs for neurological and related central nervous system disorders, plans to submit a new drug application for primavanserin to the FDA near the end of this year.

—Exelixis (NASDAQ: EXEL) of South San Francisco, CA said Tuesday that its flagship product cabozantinib, approved to treat a form of thyroid cancer, failed in a Phase 3 trial in advanced prostate cancer. It’s a huge blow to the biotech; it said it would lay off 160 employees, or 70 percent of staff, and take a restructuring charge of $6 million to $8 million as it forges ahead with cabozantinib in trials for kidney and liver cancer. At market close Wednesday, Exelixis shares were $1.90 each, down 54 percent from their position just before the bad news.

—Another West Coast biotech saw its share price drop, but not for a discernible clinical failure. Alder Biopharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALDR) of Bothell, WA, said Monday that New York-based development partner Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) was returning all rights to Alder’s clazakizumab, which showed promising Phase 2 data in 2013 as a rheumatoid arthritis treatment. A BMS spokesperson told Xconomy the decision was … Next Page »

Alex Lash is Xconomy's National Biotech Editor. He is based in San Francisco. Follow @alexlash

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