West Coast Biotech Roundup: Amgen Layoffs, Avalanche, Venter & More

7/31/14Follow @alexlash

Summer in Seattle is usually a joyous season, but with the big West Coast news this week, a gloom more typical of the city’s winter months settled over the biotech community. Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) said it would shut down its research facility in town and a manufacturing plant in the suburb of Bothell. The closures will remove 660 jobs from Seattle, part of a worldwide reduction of up to 2,900 jobs, or 12 to 15 percent of Amgen’s headcount.

The closure also ends the chapter of Amgen’s presence in Seattle that began when it bought Immunex in 2002 to add etanercept (Enbrel) to its product line. First approved in 1998, etanercept has become one of biotech’s most successful drugs, treating rheumatoid arthritis and four other autoimmune diseases. Amgen also said it would shut facilities in Colorado and cut 430 jobs.

Down the coast, it (still) wasn’t raining cats and dogs in drought-stricken California, but Avalanche Biotechnologies drew a flood of cash in one of the year’s bigger biotech IPOs, and investment dollars flowed into digital health, vaccine, and cancer diagnostics companies. All this and more in this week’s West Coast roundup, so let’s get to it.

—Menlo Park, CA-based Avalanche Biotechnologies (NASDAQ: AAVL), which is developing gene therapies for severe eye diseases, raised $102 million in its IPO and began trading on the Nasdaq Thursday morning. Avalanche sold 6 million shares at $17 apiece, a notable increase from the 5.4 million shares and $13 to $15 per share projection from earlier this week. At noon ET Thursday shares were up another 65 percent to $28 apiece. Development partner and shareholder Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: REGN) has also agreed to buy $10 million worth of Avalanche stock at the IPO price in a concurrent private placement, which will boost the company’s total haul. Zygtech held 17.4 percent of Avalanche’s shares before the IPO. Venrock (13.4 percent), FMR LLC (9 percent), and Deerfield (5.9 percent) also own big stakes, along with Regeneron. The company’s lead candidate is AVA-101, a prospective gene therapy it’s testing as a treatment for the wet form of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetic macular edema, among other diseases.

—Vaccine maker PaxVax of Redwood City, CA, said Monday it raised up to $50 million in debt financing and sold $12 million of its Series B stock. At the same time the firm said it acquired from Crucell an oral typhoid vaccine called Vivotif, which has been on the market for more than 20 years, as well as infrastructure and Crucell employees involved in the Vivotif business. PaxVax has a cholera vaccine in Phase 3 trials and aims to grow in the market aimed at travelers.

—San Diego biotech Epic Sciences raised $30 million in a Series C round to commercialize a new cancer diagnostics technology that can identify and characterize circulating tumor cells from a patient’s blood sample. Existing investors Domain Associates, Roche Venture Fund, Pfizer Venture Investments, and new investors RusnanoMedInvest and Arcus Ventures participated in the round. Epic also named Greg Lucier, the former chairman and CEO of Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies, as a new director and board chairman.

—Theraclone Sciences of Seattle and Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) of Foster City, CA signed a licensing deal, announced Wednesday, that gives Gilead exclusive rights to use Theraclone’s antibody technology to develop treatments for HIV. Theraclone received an upfront fee and is eligible for milestone payments, but no specifics were disclosed.

—Human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter has hired one of Google’s distinguished research scientists to be the chief data scientist at Human Longevity, his latest San Diego-based venture. Franz Och, who oversaw Google Translate for the past decade, was named as the chief data scientist for Human Longevity, responsible for developing new computational methods to translate genomic and proteomic data into “clinically actionable” information.

—Proteus Digital Health of Redwood City, CA, which makes ingestible sensors that signal when a patient has swallowed a pill, said Tuesday it has added $52 million onto its Series G round of funding, bringing the total to $172 million. The new investors were not disclosed. The first tranche of the round was disclosed in June. To date, the company has managed to put its sensors inside inactive pills that are swallowed along with medication. But it hopes one day to integrate sensors into medicine, according to its website.

—Sapphire Energy of San Diego said James Levine would take over as CEO, taking over from Cynthia “C.J.” Warner. Warner joined the industrial biotech firm in early 2009 from BP, where she was group vice president for global refining. Sapphire said Warner would continue to serve as chairwoman. But her departure signals an end to the company’s initial focus on producing algae-based gasoline and other transportation fuels. Levine said he plans to broaden and diversify Sapphire’s expertise beyond biofuels.

—-KaloBios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: KBIO) of South San Francisco, CA, said Monday that development partner Sanofi has given up rights to KaloBios’ KB001-A, an antibody-based treatment for Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection. The partners were studying the drug to treat lung infections in cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. KaloBios reclaims full rights to the program, but Sanofi will still reap up to $40 million in royalties if it ever comes to market, according to the announcement. Sanofi is also eligible for up to $40 million in payments that KaloBios might receive by re-licensing KB001-A to a new partner. The current Phase 2 study in CF patients is due to produce top-line data in early 2015.

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

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