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East Coast Biotech Roundup: Yumanity, Padlock, CAR-T Fever, & More

Xconomy Boston — 

One lesson from this week: Regardless how hard biotech is, entrepreneurs will always come back for more. As Tony Coles told me this week after he announced his new company, retirement “never sounded very appealing.” Michael Gilman similarly returned to biotech after selling Stromedix to Biogen Idec, and is moving ahead with his own new company. Both are settling in for a long, difficult road. They’re trying to figure out uncertain biology, uncover new things, and unearth fundamentally different approaches to treating disease. It’ll be expensive, it’ll take a long time, and the chance of failure is very real. But it’s pretty clear they’d each sign for the hard work in a second over relaxing in a beach chair. Those stories and more in the last roundup of 2014—Happy Holidays everyone.

—Tony Coles is best known for his work with large, established, drugmakers. But this week, Coles, who steered Onyx Pharmaceuticals to a $10 billion sale to Amgen last year, re-emerged to launch a startup instead. With the help of Nobel Prize winner Susan Lindquist, Coles formed Cambridge, MA-based Yumanity Therapeutics, which aims to tackle some of the most notoriously tough neurodegenerative diseases out there—Alzheimer’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Parkinson’s—by leaning on a drug discovery process that uses elements of yeast, neurons derived from stem cells, and phenotypic screening.

—Michael Gilman, a former Biogen R&D chief and repeat entrepreneur, also took a step forward with his new startup, Cambridge-based Padlock Therapeutics. The company raised a $23 million Series A led by Atlas Venture, with participation from Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Index Ventures, and MS Ventures. Padlock is zeroing in on protein-arginine deiminases, or “PAD” enyzmes—rocket fuel for the immune system—hoping to attack autoimmune disorders in a completely different way than current methods.

—David Altshuler helped found the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT more than a decade ago. But like some other recent high-profile scientists to flee to industry of late—among them Greg Verdine and David Botstein—Altshuler is taking up residence as Vertex Pharmaceuticals’s (NASDAQ: VRTX) chief scientific officer and executive vice president of global research. He’ll begin his new gig in early 2015.

—CAR-T fever hit Wall Street this week, as two of the major players in cellular cancer immunotherapies—Juno Therapeutics of Seattle (formed partly from research out of New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center) and Houston’s Bellicum Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: BLCM) both made their Nasdaq debuts to big receptions from public investors. Juno’s success is potentially lucrative news for Sloan-Kettering: it’s entitled to some significant “success payments” from Juno based on the company’s stock price. Those payments kick in if the stock goes to $40. Juno priced 11 million shares last night at $24 apiece.

—Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) has made some shrewd calls with startups over the past few years, forging deals and buying stocks in now-high-flying companies like Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AGIO) and Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE). This week, it participated in a $38 million financing for a San Carlos, CA-based startup called Flexus Biosciences, which is developing small-molecule cancer immunotherapy drugs. Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, which has incubated Flexus since October 2013, and The Column Group also took part in the round. Flexus is headed by Terry Rosen, a former Amgen executive.

—Speaking of Bluebird, as expected, the company used its massive stock surge over the past few weeks—a result of its encouraging gene therapy data—to raise about $211 million in a stock offering.

—Shares of Watertown, MA-based Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: TTPH) jumped almost 15 percent after the company announced positive results from the first of two Phase 3 trials for eravacycline, an antibiotic it’s developing for complicated intra-abdominal infections. Tetraphase has a second study underway for eravacycline complicated urinary tract infections that is expected to produce results in mid-2015. Xconomy profiled Tetraphase’s approach back in 2010.

—In other antibiotics news, retiring Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CBST) CEO Mike Bonney has joined Alnylam Pharmaceuticals’s (NASDAQ: ALNY) board of directors. Kenilworth, NJ-based Merck just made a $9.5 billion bid for Cubist a few weeks ago—on the same day, incidentally, that Cubist lost a patent challenge to Hospira (Merck, for its part, has said that it still intends to complete the buyout).

—Merck, in the meantime, announced another buyout this week. It’ll pay $110 million up front, and potentially another $265 million in milestones, for privately-held Swiss biotech OncoEthix, which is developing a cancer drug prospect currently in Phase 1b testing. The drug targets bromodomain and extra-terminal, or “BET” proteins, which are implicated in cancer growth and survival.

—Bedminster, NJ-based NPS Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: NPSP) also got a stock bump due to a fresh round of rumors in Bloomberg that Shire will use some of the breakup-fee cash from its scuttled AbbVie buyout to bid for the company.

—The news wasn’t so good for Berkeley Heights, NJ-based Cyclacel Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CYCC), which said this week that an independent data safety monitoring board concluded that a Phase 3 study of its acute myeloid leukemia drug is likely to fail. Even so, the trial is continuing on, because no safety concerns cropped up and Cyclacel is going to see if more time on the drug leads to better results. Shares crumbled more than 80 percent on the news.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons via Flickr user Javier Gutierrez Acedo