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West Coast Bio Roundup: Gene Edit Talk, Not Poor ORIC, BioMarin Sags

Xconomy San Francisco — 

[Corrected, 12/4/15, 5:10pm. See below.] In Washington, DC, this week, a three-day meeting brought together scientists, ethicists, and others to discuss the blistering advances in gene editing and the related legal, ethical, and medical implications. David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winning biologist at the Pasadena-based California Institute of Technology, led the committee that planned the meeting, and he presented its recommendations to wrap everything up Thursday afternoon.

Other West Coasters were deeply involved in the meeting, including gene editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley. She is not only instrumental in bringing about a powerful type of gene editing called CRISPR-Cas9, but also bringing to the forefront the urgent public discussion about its ramifications.

Two Bay Area ethicists joined the meeting: Hank Greely, a Stanford University professor, and Marcy Darnovsky, director of Berkeley’s Center for Genetics and Society. As the summit began, the CGS called for a ban on the use of genetically altered sperm, eggs, and embryos for reproductive purposes, a position that the summit’s organizers stopped short of endorsing.

To hear more from Darnovsky and Greely about gene editing and other 21st century bioethical matters, join us on Dec. 10 at Xconomy’s Bay Area Life Science Disruptors event. They will cap the event with a discussion, moderated by me. The full agenda is here.

There was plenty of other West Coast news this week, not to mention the week before Thanksgiving, so let’s get to the roundup.

—ORIC Pharmaceuticals of South San Francisco, CA, raised a $53 million Series B round to fight drug-resistant cancers. Its lead product, not yet in human testing, is aimed at prostate cancer no longer treatable with the drug enzalutamide (Xtandi). ORIC and enzalutamide have plenty of history. ORIC founder Charles Sawyers, a high-profile researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, helped discover the drug when he was at UCLA. Both UCLA and interim CEO Rich Heyman’s previous company, Aragon Pharmaceuticals of San Diego, were sued unsuccessfully by enzalutamide’s owner for patent infringement, a suit that was dismissed in 2013.

—Shares of BioMarin Pharmaceutical (NASDAQ: BMRN) of San Rafael, CA, continued to sag this week after a FDA advisory committee weighed in on Nov. 24 with criticism of the firm’s drisapersen, a treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Trading of BioMarin stock was halted for the day. The FDA is expected to decide whether to approve the drug by Dec. 27.

—A bipartisan Senate report on high drug prices released Tuesday said Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) of Foster City, CA, knew its $1,000-a-pill price for hepatitis C treatment sofosbuvir (Sovaldi) would attract criticism and limit access for a large number of patients. “Based on our investigation, the company chose to put revenue ahead of affordability,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said this week, according to the Wall Street Journal. Wyden and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa co-sponsored the investigation.

—Two weeks after Martin Shkreli took over the flailing Redwood City, CA-based KaloBios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: KBIO), the company announced more executive appointments—Shkreli’s colleagues from his controversial firm Turing Pharmaceuticals—and the acquisition of a drug to treat Chagas disease.

—Patrick Soon-Shiong told the Los Angeles Times that he has decided not to try for an IPO this year with bioinformatics and services firm NantHealth, part of his NantWorks healthcare conglomerate. “There is no reason for us to go out there in a bear market,” Soon-Shiong told the Times.

—Up north in San Francisco, the University of California held PrimeUC, a demo-day type event for life science startups affiliated with the university system. Six hours of judging were closed to the public, but the 20 finalists gave one-minute presentations to an afternoon crowd. The winner of the $150,000 grand prize was Spinal Singularity, makers of a urinary catheter system for people who’ve lost ability to feel fullness in their bladders because of spinal cord injury, neurological disease, or other reasons.

—True North Therapeutics of South San Francisco, CA, said it has raised $40 million in a Series C round from New Leaf Ventures and others. The cash will help True North push its lead drug, a treatment for cold agglutinin disease (CAD) into a Phase 1b trial by the end of the year. The company hopes the cash will be enough to take the drug, TNT009, up to a potential FDA approval. CAD is a rare disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own red blood cells.

—One San Diego company acquired another as Human Longevity bought Cypher Genomics, which has developed software to rapidly and accurately interpret genomic data. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. Human Longevity was co-founded by J. Craig Venter to explore the human genome for ways to improve health and extend life.

—Xconomy San Diego editor Bruce Bigelow interviewed Vijay Pande, a former Stanford professor who has joined Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz to run its new $200 million “bio fund” to focus on opportunities for using software to solve problems at life sciences companies.

—Nohla Therapeutics launched in Seattle this week with $20 million from undisclosed investors and blood-cord technology licensed from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Nohla aims to amplify the number of stem cells in umbilical cord blood, which could improve the use of cord blood as an alternative to bone marrow transplants for cancer patients who have undergone chemotherapy.

—More Fred Hutch news: Seattle’s Presage Biosciences, spun out of the Hutch in 2008, said before Thanksgiving it has licensed the cancer drug voruciclib from an Indian firm to try with its own drug-testing device, known as CIVO. CIVO injects combinations of cancer drugs into live tumors via tiny needles. Licensing terms were not disclosed.

—In Vancouver, BC, Zymeworks inked a collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) to develop antibody treatments based on Zymeworks’ technology. GSK can take the rights to … Next Page »

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