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Bio Roundup: RIP Roger Tsien, Novartis CAR-T Wheel, Zika News & More

Xconomy National — 

A man who helped shed light—fluorescent light—on biology died far too early, at the age of 64. Nobel Prize winner Roger Tsien, a UC San Diego chemist, passed away in Oregon this week. No cause of death has been announced. He helped turn a jellyfish protein into an invaluable lab tool that every researcher knows as “GFP”—green fluorescent protein, which is used to illuminate the inner workings of cells. As the San Diego Union Tribune reported in 2013, Tsien (pictured) was also unafraid to shine the spotlight on what he considered suspect scientific approaches, even when espoused by legends like DNA co-discoverer James Watson.

Just last month, a startup Tsien cofounded announced a round of funding to push ahead with a fluorescent technology that aims to help surgeons cut out tumors without removing healthy tissue.

For more on Tsien and the rest of the week’s news, let’s get to the roundup.

—Healthcare giant Novartis (NYSE: NOV) is breaking up its cell and gene therapy R&D group, laying off roughly 30 percent of staff. A spokeswoman told Xconomy it was part of an “internal re-alignment.” But the company insists it will stay the course with its lead product, a T cell-based cancer immunotherapy called CTL019 that Novartis could present for regulatory approval if current trials go well. Beyond CTL019, it’s unclear how much of the group’s cell therapy—known as CAR-T because it extracts a patient’s own T cells and engineers them with a “chimeric antigen receptor” to better fight cancer—will continue to receive Novartis’s support.

—Cambridge, MA-based messenger RNA drug developer Moderna Therapeutics is raising another huge financing round, according to an SEC filing. The firm has nabbed $451 million toward its goal of $600 million. The firm raised $450 million in January 2015.

—Nobel Prize winning chemist Roger Tsien died at the age of 64 while riding his bike in Oregon. He was a professor at UC San Diego. His Nobel stemmed from his work on fluorescent proteins, now a laboratory staple in biological and medical research.

—Staying in San Diego, Synthetic Genomics reported in Nature Methods that its scientists have re-engineered the salt-marsh-loving bacterium V. natriegens to become a workhorse in the industrial production of proteins, which are often then used as drugs… the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine are leading an effort, using cell reprogramming techniques, to investigate bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and potentially find drugs for the conditions. The National Institute of Mental Health is providing a $15.4 million grant.

—Cytomx Therapeutics (NASDAQ: CTMX) HR executive Danielle Olander examined the gender imbalance in biotech C-suites and offered ways to balance the scales and groom more female life science executives for top roles… The Washington Post reported on gender bias at the National Institutes of Health, spurred by a complaint one scientist recently filed.

—Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3: Rigel Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: RIGL) overhauled its strategy a few years ago, and it might pay off. Rigel’s fostamatinib, which failed a past rheumatoid arthritis trial, succeeded in the first of two Phase 3 trials in chronic immune thrombocytopenia, a rare blood disease. Shares climbed 35 percent on the news… Roche’s Genentech division, of South San Francisco, CA, said its immunotherapy treatment atezolizumab (Tecentriq), already approved for bladder cancer, posted strong interim Phase 3 results with patients whose non-small cell lung cancer had not responded to chemotherapy. The FDA should make an approval decision on atezolilzumab in lung cancer by October 19, according to Genentech…. The developers of the newest generation of cholesterol fighting drugs, called PCSK9 inhibitors, reported data from various subgroups of people with high cholesterol. The companies—Amgen, Sanofi, and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals—are due to release important long-term data next year that will shape the debate over the drugs’ prices.

—Cambridge-based Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) published the results of an early stage study of closely watched Alzheimer’s disease drug aducanumab in the journal Nature. With the benefit of peer review, the publication garnered international headlines but disclosed little new information beyond what Biogen described last year. The outlook remains as it has for more than a year; aducanumab’s fate will likely hinge upon the large Phase 3 trial already underway.

—Zika Plans: Last month Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, rebuffing questions about the company’s year of troubles, described a new “MiniLab” blood diagnostic system that would include Zika virus detection. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, however, that the firm has withdrawn its FDA approval request for the Zika test over concerns that Theranos didn’t do enough to ensure patient safety… Roche received FDA approval for emergency use of its own Zika test… The U.S. biodefense agency known as BARDA has contracted with … Next Page »

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