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West Coast Bio Roundup: Theranos, 23andMe, Invitae, Gritstone, Etc.

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Biotech executives and investors gathered in San Francisco this week to size one another up, schmooze, and eat rubber chicken lunches—although the vegetarian ravioli option wasn’t bad. It was the best-attended of the 14 BioInvestor Forums (Fora?) so far, according to its organizers. It certainly beat the 2011 version, which featured creative room-remodeling to hide the sparse attendance and a panel that actually included the word “apocalypse.”

With airline tickets and hotel rooms booked months in advance, however, conference attendance in the face of rapidly changing market conditions is more a trailing indicator than anything else. That helps explain Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes’s appearance this week. To her credit, she showed up at a Wall Street Journal tech conference one week after a WSJ investigative report scrubbed away the shiny veneer that media outlets—including the WSJ itself, in previous soft-focus coverage by a member of the paper’s editorial board—had built around the blood-test company. She ripped into the investigative report, and a follow-up story, calling the paper a “tabloid” and countering many of the allegations.

In a dizzying bit of new-media fun-house mirror play, here’s the Journal’s own live blog of the Holmes interview, with a rejoinder at the end that counters Holmes’s on-stage claims.

IPOs, Theranos, and now, Valeant Pharmaceuticals (NYSE: VRX) lately have all played the role of once-hot, now-not poster child in the life sciences world. Who will be next? While we all ponder that question, let’s round up the week’s West Coast news.

—As anticipated, 23andMe of Mountain View, CA, said it would once again offer its customers health-related information through its DNA tests. With FDA approval, the firm will sell “carrier status” tests, letting parents know if they carry genes that might lead to disease in their children. Two years ago, the FDA shut down the health-information side of the company’s consumer test business. The company has continued to sell ancestry tests and license its customers’ data to drug companies looking for clues to help develop new products. Richard Scheller left Genentech and joined 23andMe earlier this year to lead a new in-house drug development effort.

—23andMe is one of several entities looking to profit by aggregating vast pools of consumer genomics and other health information. In that context, I examined this week the San Francisco genetic testing firm Invitae (NASDAQ: NVTA) and its ambitions that go well beyond its first line of business of providing “generic genetic” tests for hereditary diseases. Those ambitions potentially put Invitae in competition with 23andMe and other West Coast companies such as San Diego’s Helix and Human Longevity and Seattle’s Arivale.

—Speaking of making promises about a drop of blood, SalveoDx, a San Diego startup backed by Domain Associates, has raised $2 million of a planned $2.5 million in equity funding. The company appears to be developing diagnostic technology that yields insights from a single drop of blood, according to Meghana Keshavan, who broke the story in MedCity News.

—Gritstone Oncology of San Francisco launched with a $102 million Series A round this week, led by San Francisco-based Versant Ventures and The Column Group. The cancer vaccine startup is based in the Bay Area, although some of its informatics and sequencing work will take place in Cambridge, MA, where rival “neoantigen” firm Neon Therapeutics launched earlier this month with backing from Third Rock Ventures.

—The U.S. National Academy of Medicine announced 80 new members. West Coasters who were named included Atul Butte of the University of California, San Francisco, Glenn Chertow of the Stanford University School of Medicine, Gary Gilliland of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Roberto Malinow of the University of California, San Diego, Bonnie Ramsey of Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington School of Medicine, and Scheller of 23andMe.

—Relypsa (NASDAQ: RLYP) of Redwood City, CA, said Wednesday it had received FDA approval for its drug patiromer (Veltassa) to treat treat of hyperkalemia, or elevated levels of potassium in the blood, which is often a problem in patients being treated for kidney or cardiac disease. The approval came with a so-called “black box” warning, however, that patiromer might interfere with the effectiveness of many other drugs. The warning drove down Relypsa stock, with shares ending Thursday at $11.76 each, about 30 percent lower than Wednesday’s opening price.

—San Diego-based Kura Oncology, which already trades over the counter under the ticker KURO, is looking to raise $86 million through a Nasdaq IPO. Founding CEO Troy Wilson previewed the Nasdaq move with Xconomy earlier this year. Kura licensed tipifarnib, a prospective cancer drug that washed out in 2005, from J&J’s Janssen Pharmaceutica to see how the drug would fare against certain types of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and solid tumors.

—NantWorks, the Los-Angeles-based healthcare conglomerate owned by Patrick Soon-Shiong, invested $50 million for a majority stake of Precision Biologics, a Dallas cancer vaccine developer with a lead candidate in Phase 2 for advanced colorectal and pancreatic cancer.

—Seattle’s Nexgenia is contributing its drug-discovery tools to Seattle Children’s Research Institute for cancer immunotherapy research.

—Roche’s Genentech division in South San Francisco, CA, has signed an exclusive deal with Nimbus Therapeutics of Cambridge, MA, to develop drugs that inhibit the target known as IRAK-4, a key protein in the innate immune system. Terms were not disclosed.

—San Francisco’s Life Science Foundation and Philadelphia’s Chemical Heritage Foundation, both historical societies, have agreed to merge. University of Pennsylvania science historian Arnold Thackray founded both organizations.

—PatientSafe Solutions, a San Diego healthtech company, said it has acquired Vree Health, a Merck subsidiary in Annandale, NJ, that has developed technologies and services to engage patients in their own care and reduce hospital readmissions. Financial terms were not disclosed, but CEO Joe Condurso outlined the company’s strategy with Xconomy’s Bruce Bigelow.

—Xconomy San Diego editor Bruce Bigelow contributed to this report.