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Biogen Strikes Deal with Knopp for ALS Drugs, Selecta Gets New CEO, Avantra Scores $7M, & More Boston-Area Life Sciences News

Xconomy Boston — 

News of funding and partnerships for area biotechs, plus an in-depth interview with a state life sciences administrator, made it a busy news week for us.

—Last week Ryan broke the news that former executives of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, the biotech known for developing drugs based on the red wine chemical resveratrol, were selling a dietary supplement form of the chemical via their nonprofit, the Healthy Lifespan Institute. GlaxoSmithKline, which acquired Sirtris more than two years ago for about $720 million, ordered Christoph Westphal and Michelle Dipp to stop online sales of the dietary supplement, which is believed to activate anti-aging genes that boost metabolic functions in cells. (The supplements are made in the same synthetic process as the resveratrol drug SRT501; the Healthy Lifespan Institute says that the drug was tested in liquid form in capsules of 5 grams and the supplements are provided in powder form in 250-milligram capsules). Glaxo told Westphal and Dipp to resign from the board of the nonprofit that was selling resveratrol supplements. Glaxo claimed it was unaware resveratrol was being sold via the nonprofit.

—Watertown, MA-based Selecta Biosciences, a biotech company developing nanoparticle-based vaccines, added a new chief executive, Werner Cautreels. He previously worked as CEO at Belgium-based Solvay Pharmaceuticals, until shortly after Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT) bought the company for $6.6 billion. Selecta also attracted a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research a nicotine vaccine for those addicted to cigarettes.

—Ryan sat down with Susan Windham-Bannister, head of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which is in charge of running the state’s plan to invest $1 billion in the life sciences sector over 10 years. The two-part story on their inerview spotlights Windham-Bannister’s take on topics like Sanofi-Aventis’ potential takeover of Genzyme, the role of activist investor Carl Icahn, and the influence political change could have on the state’s plans for advancing the life sciences industry.

—Shape Up The Nation, a maker of Web-based software and services for employer wellness programs, pulled in a $5 million Series A funding round. Company management, Cue Ball Capital, and Excel Venture Management participated in the financing for Providence, RI-based Shape Up The Nation.

—Protein biomarker technology developer Avantra Biosciences of Woburn, MA, raised $7 million in a Series A funding round. The company is developing its technology to detect a range of diseases. Charlestown, MA-based Courtagen Capital Group, plus unnamed institutional and individual investors, participated in the financing.

—Weston, MA-based Biogen Idec said it struck a deal with Knopp Neurosciences to work on an experimental drug for the condition known as Lou Gehrig’s disease: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB), a leading multiple sclerosis drugmaker, has paid Pittsburgh, PA-based Knopp $20 million upfront, and bought $60 million of the company’s stock. Another $265 million could be in the works for Knopp if it meets certain development and commercialization goals. The drug for ALS, a condition that attacks nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain, expands Biogen’s stock of treatments for neurological disorders.

—New Haven, CT-based Achillion Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ACHN), a developer of drugs targeting infectious diseases, announced it plans to raise $50.1 million in a private sale of its common stock and warrants. Achillion says it will put the proceeds toward developing drugs for hepatitis C, including a protease inhibitor set to enter Phase II clinical trials next month.

—Ryan took a look at Cambridge-based Agios Pharmaceuticals, which is expanding its staff and labs, largely thanks to $130 million the company got this spring from drugmaker Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG). Agios is out to develop drugs that target mutated enzymes that are seen as enabling cancer cells to grow. The deal gives Celgene the exclusive right to license the cancer-starving drugs Agios develops for a certain period of time, the duration of which was undisclosed by both companies.