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Lilly Funds Cerulean, Genzyme Sells Diagnostics Unit, Roche Ends RNAi Program, & More Boston-Area Life Sciences News

Xconomy Boston — 

We saw some in-depth profiles of New England-area biotechs’ drug development strategies, as well as breaking news on financings and partnership deals.

—While Bay Area biotech startup Gatekeeper Pharmaceuticals, Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Novartis continue their legal wrangling over a potential lung cancer drug, Waltham, MA-based Avila Therapeutics is working on its own treatment for the disease. The biotech is using its covalent drug technology in a partnership with Boulder, CO-based Clovis Oncology to discover treatments for non-small cell lung cancers that are resistant to existing drugs.

—Ryan took a look at how Waltham-based biotech Alkermes navigated the aftermath of a negative regulatory decision. The firm’s operations have stayed the same and it has not made any layoffs, despite its request for approval of a once-weekly version of the diabetes drug exenatide (Bydureon) being shot down by the FDA.

—Cerulean Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge, MA-based developer of nanoparticle drugs, brought in a $24 million Series C funding round, led by Lilly Ventures, the venture arm of drug giant Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY). The startup will put the funding, which also came from existing backers Bessemer Venture Partners, Lux Capital, Polaris Venture Partners, and Venrock Associates, toward a mid-stage clinical trial of its lead drug, CRLX101, for patients with lung cancer.

Verastem, a Boston-based startup out to develop cancer-fighting drugs that target cancer stem cells, kicked off with $16 million in Series A funding. The startup was founded with investments by Longwood Founders Fund, and the Series A round also includes Bessemer Venture Partners, Cardinal Partners, and MPM Capital. Founded by MIT biologists Robert Weinberg and Eric Lander, Verastem has developed a method that it says has the potential to identify compounds that can selectively home in on cancer stem cells that have survived chemotherapies and kill them.

—Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) announced it was starting a Cambridge-headquartered program, called the Global Centers for Therapeutic Innovation, to establish an entrepreneurship network with academic medical research centers. The first school announced as part of the system is UC San Francisco, which could received up to $85 million over five years to help get discoveries made at the school to market.

—Cambridge-based Forma Therapeutics will get $20 million over three years, from Tokyo-based drug company Eisai, to develop drugs aimed at typically stubborn disease targets. The deal gives Eisai non-exclusive access to Forma’s cell-based screening platform and proprietary compound library to use for discoveries for its own drug pipeline.

—Swiss drug giant Roche announced it will ax its development efforts in the area of RNA interference. The sting was felt at Roche RNAi research facilities in Kulmbach, Germany, Nutley, NJ, and Madison, WI, and at Cambridge-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, which in 2007 inked a deal to give Roche access to its RNAi technology to develop drugs for cancer, respiratory diseases, metabolic disorders, and certain liver conditions. The biotech stood to earn $1 billion over time through the deal, which brought in $331 million upfront.

—Minerva Biotechnologies, a Waltham, MA-based firm working in the fields of cancer, nanotechnology, and stem cells, brought in $4.6 million in an equity and rights offering, according to an SEC filing.

—Cambridge-based Genzyme announced it would sell its diagnostics products unit to Japan-based Sekisui Chemical for $265 million in cash. As part of the deal, which is expected to close this year, Sekisui will offer jobs to the roughly 575 employees in the division. The sale by Genzyme comes as part of its move to sharpen its focus to fend off a potential takeover by French drug company Sanofi-Aventis.

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