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Bio Roundup: Funding Frenzy, Opioid Summit, Celgene Woes & More

Xconomy National — 

Biotech startups rolled in cash this week. By our count, investors put more than $800 million into life-sciences startups in four days. The money came from a wide range of backers, not just traditional biotech venture firms. It’s early yet in 2018, but the current count could put life-sciences companies on pace to bust past last year’s $17.6 billion, a figure compiled in the Venture Monitor Report.

Elsewhere, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled a new task force that will go after the makers and distributors of opioid drugs, Celgene shocked investors with an unexpected setback, and a planned $4.3 billion merger was thrown into chaos. Let’s round it all up.

OPIOIDS & OBAMACARE

—As the Trump administration convened a summit this week and Congress began work on several antidrug bills, the Justice Department said it would more aggressively go after drug makers and distributors that contribute to the opioid crisis.

—Twenty states filed suit against Obamacare, saying now that the individual mandate has been repealed by Congress, the rest of the Affordable Care Act should fall.

—Iowa lawmakers want to give the state farm bureau rights to sell health insurance that wouldn’t be regulated by the ACA. The plans could be a lot cheaper for healthy people but would also skirt rules that, for example, bar insurers from charging more for people with preexisting conditions.

FROTHY FUNDINGS

—Quentis Therapeutics, a cancer immunotherapy startup from the labs of former Weill Cornell Medicine dean Laurie Glimcher, debuted with a $48 million financing. The funding adds to recent momentum for a New York biotech scene trying to show it can consistently produce high-profile biotech startups.

—Generation Bio, of Cambridge, MA, followed up a $25 million raise in January with a new $100 million round to continue developing a technology meant to broaden the reach of gene therapy.

—AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN) spun six of the experimental drugs from its Gaithersburg, MD, R&D hub MedImmune into a new startup, Viela Bio, backed by $250 million in funding from a group of Chinese private equity funds. Here’s more in the Washington Post.

—Gelesis, a startup formed by PureTech Health, raised another $30 million as it seeks regulatory approval of its hydrogel weight-loss pill, Gelesis100.

Bloomberg reported that Grail, which wants to develop a screening for cancer in otherwise healthy people, is looking into an IPO in Hong Kong.

—Finch Therapeutics raised $36 million in Series B cash to push ahead with its pipeline of microbiome-based therapies. Its lead product is a mixture of gut bacteria from healthy donors to treat people with C. difficile infection.

—Novo Holdings launched a $165 million fund that will invest in companies developing treatments to fight antimicrobial resistance.

—Senti Biosciences debuted with a $53 million Series A round and plans to use synthetic biology to program cells to treat disease.

—Helix raised $200 million in a Series B round to expand its online store for products and tests based on a customer’s genetics.

—Inscripta unveiled a $55.5 million Series C round that will help the Boulder, CO, company develop its gene editing tools and technologies.

—By the time Rubius Therapeutics, a Cambridge, MA, cell therapy developer, closed a $100 million Series B round, biotech startups had raised more than $600 million in four days. One venture capitalist said the frenzied activity is due to the increased presence of crossover, generalist, and non-U.S. investors in biotech rounds, which is driving up valuations.

SHARE DUMPS

—The FDA issued a “refuse to file” letter to Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), saying its approval application for the multiple sclerosis drug ozanimod was insufficient. Though the Summit, NJ, drugmaker said it doesn’t need to conduct more clinical trials, investors frowned on the unexpected news, sending the company’s shares down 8 percent.

—-German healthcare company Fresenius said it is looking into possible data breaches at Akorn Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AKRX), an inquiry that it acknowledged could scuttle a deal to acquire the generic drug maker. Akorn’s shares plunged 30 percent on the news.

—Akcea Therapeutics (NASDAQ: AKCA) shares fell 25 percent after executives reported on an earnings call that dangerously low platelet counts were reported in another patient on volanesorsen, its drug for the rare metabolic disease familial chylomicronemia syndrome. An FDA advisory panel will debate the merits of volanesorsen on May 10.

ODDS & ENDS

—Safety problems such as dangerous immune reactions have caused Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) and AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) to pull daclizumab (Zinbryta), a monthly injectible drug for multiple sclerosis, off the market. Daclizumab, approved by the FDA in May 2016, generated just $53 million in sales in 2017

—The North Plaza in Cambridge, MA’s Kendall Square was renamed “Henri A. Termeer Square,” in honor of the late ex-Genzyme CEO who helped create the rare disease drug business.

—Acorda Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ACOR) cut a deal with Scopia Capital Management, giving the activist investor, which previously pushed Acorda to sell itself, two board seats.

—The dispute between Arcturus Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ARCT) and its fired CEO Joseph Payne took another turn, with the former executive urging shareholders to replace the board of directors and the company warning that Payne’s actions could make it miss financial reporting deadlines.

—The CEO of Esperion Therapeutics told Bloomberg that its anti-cholesterol pill will cost $10 a day. On an annual basis, it’s less than a third of what rivals Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: REGN) charge for their PCSK9 inhibitors. The revelation was unusual, however, in that Esperion’s pill is still experimental—initial Phase 3 results are due this month—and companies typically don’t discuss pricing until a drug gains approval.

—Pear Therapeutics, the “digital therapeutics” company that last year received the first FDA clearance for software that treats substance abuse disorder,  began a research partnership with Novartis (NYSE: NVS) to develop similar products addressing schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.

—Convicted of securities fraud last summer, “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli asked the presiding federal judge for a lenient sentence of 12 to 18 months. The sentence is due on March 9, according to Reuters.

Frank Vinluan and Alex Lash contributed to this report.