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SD Life Sciences Roundup: Ambrx Gets Big Partner, GenMark, & More

Xconomy National — 

While much of the life sciences news seemed to come out of the big BIO conference in Boston, San Diego still had its share of significant developments over the past week. Here’s my rundown.

—Merck (NYSE MRK), the New Jersey pharmaceutical giant, agreed to pay San Diego-based Ambrx $15 million—and another $288 million in potential milestone payments—for technology to deliver a double-whammy to cancer cells and other disease targets. As part of the deal, Merck plans to supply Ambrx some additional biological targets for technology that combines the precision of targeted antibody drugs with potent toxins in what Ambrx calls “antibody drug conjugates.”

—After almost three years as the chief business officer at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, Paul Laikind is now the president and CEO at San Diego’s ViaCyte, a preclinical life sciences company. ViaCyte has been developing a new cell therapy product for treating insulin-dependent diabetes. Laikind, who discussed his vision for business development at the Sanford-Burnham institute, was previously a co-founder at Gensia Pharmaceuticals, Viagene, and Metabasis Therapeutics.

—Carlsbad, CA-based GenMark Diagnostics (NASDAQ: GNMK) said it has priced a secondary public offering of 10 million shares of its common stock at a price of $4.20 a share. GenMark, which makes automated molecular diagnostic testing systems to diagnose disease and optimize patient treatment, said net proceeds from the public offering will be used for research and development and to expand its commercial organizations in the U.S. and around the world.

—Boston’s NXT Capital Venture Finance Group said it has closed on a $7 million subordinated venture loan to San Diego-based GreatCall, the mobile virtual network operator and parent company of Jitterbug mobile handsets. GreatCall plans to use the additional capital to accelerate its plans to expand its health and wellness services for Jitterbug customers. In addition to the financing, GreatCall has secured venture investments from Charles River Ventures, Court Square Ventures, Nauta Capital, Steelpoint Capital Partners, and Sumitomo.

—The U.S. biotech industry wasn’t immune to the Great Recession, according to a report commissioned by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). The analysis counted more than 1.6 million bioscience-based jobs in the U.S. in 2010—a 1.4 percent decline in employment (or roughly 23,000 fewer biotech industry jobs). Yet biotech fared better than overall private sector employment in the U.S., which fell by 6.9 percent over the same period.

BioMed Ventures’ Bruce Steel told me the venture business he’s led for nearly two years at San Diego’s BioMed Realty (NYSE: BMR) is really more of a strategic partnership initiative than a venture fund. BioMed Realty is a real estate investment trust (REIT) that works closely with the life sciences companies that rent space in its facilities. As Steel told me, “I thought it would be interesting to leverage the entire real estate platform to work more closely with tenants, prospective tenants, and other [life sciences companies], with a view to supporting those companies, and to make a minor investment where appropriate,” Steel said.