Calistoga Picks Up Buzz at ASCO, Thanks to Momentum from Rival

5/30/09Follow @xconomy

Last Wednesday night, the top dealmaker at Seattle-based Calistoga Pharmaceuticals got a tip that one of his rivals was on the verge of striking a huge deal. Cliff Stocks, the chief business officer, told CEO Carol Gallagher he was hopeful the rumor was true—that some Big Pharma company would pay a fortune for an experimental cancer drug in their class. That would generate lots of buzz for their whole field of biology on the eve of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting, an annual extravaganza for cancer drug development.

Thursday morning, Stocks’s wish came true. South San Francisco-based Exelixis announced a partnership with Paris-based Sanofi-Aventis that brought $140 million in upfront cash to the smaller company, and potential milestone payments worth more than $1 billion. For all that loot, Sanofi gets the right to co-develop a drug that blocks one of the hottest targets on cells in cancer biology, the PI3 kinase. The Exelixis drug is still in the earliest stage of clinical trials, the same phase Calistoga is in with its own compound that’s being targeted at different tumor types.

“I was sitting in the office with Carol and said, if Exelixis can close its deal before ASCO, that will make us the darling of the conference,” Stocks says. “It puts a very big spotlight on the PI3 kinase.”

Calistoga already raised its profile by a couple notches earlier this month when it raised $30 million in a second round of venture capital from Frazier Healthcare Ventures, Alta Partners, Three Arch Partners, and Amgen Ventures. The company is facing a lot of serious competitors in its category, including Novartis, Roche, and GlaxoSmithKline in the Big Pharma crowd, and Oncothyreon, Semafore Pharmaceuticals, and Intellikine in the biotech startup space. Calistoga claims to be carving out a niche within the niche, by aiming its drugs at an even more specific type of the PI3 kinase, known as the delta isoform, which it hopes will cause it to have compelling effectiveness for blood cancers, without hitting similar structures on cells that might lead to unwanted side effects. Other drugs that block more variations of PI3 kinase are thought to have greater use against solid tumors, Stocks says.

Some data to support Calistoga’s hypothesis is being presented at the ASCO meeting in Orlando, FL, today, but it’s still very preliminary. The Calistoga drug, CAL-101, showed an ability to partially shrink tumors … Next Page »

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