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West Coast Bio Roundup: CRISPR Patent, HCV Data, Verily Digs & More

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Pouring rain? Hailstorms? Record-setting heat? Freakin’ gnarly wipeouts on killer waves? Desert blooms stretching for miles? Bald eagles stuck in trees? Yeah, we got those. Welcome to February on the West Coast, where the biotech news is nearly as varied as the weather and its effects.

The developments of the past seven days included a CRISPR patent, a new fibrosis startup, and data from a hepatitis C program that was seemingly left behind when curative drugs shook up the field last year. If you’ve spent the past week basking in sunshine, rescuing raptors, and missing the latest updates, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get to the roundup.

—Caribou Biosciences of Berkeley, CA, was issued a patent for its work in the fast-moving and contentious field of CRISPR biology. CRISPR is most associated with gene editing; the first human medicine could be in clinical trials next year, CRISPR-modified plants are working their way into the food chain, and worries about designer babies, in part, spurred an international summit on the topic last December. But the Caribou patent seems to head in a different direction. It gives the company claim to use CRISPR machinery for genetic detection and analysis—perhaps in the service of making a health diagnosis, for example—but not editing.

—Pliant Therapeutics launched Thursday in Redwood City, CA, with $45 million committed from Third Rock Ventures to develop pills that stop fibrosis. The disease is a form of scarring, sometimes deadly, that can occur in several organs, including the lungs, liver, and the skin, where excessive scarring is called scleroderma. The first target for the company is in the lungs: idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis or IPF. There are drugs on the market to treat IPF, including one that Roche bought in 2014 for $8.3 billion, but Pliant CEO Bertrand Coulie told Forbes that there is plenty of room for improvement.

—Regulus Therapeutics (NASDAQ: RGLS) said interim results of a mid-stage trial suggest  its experimental hepatitis C treatment RG-101, which is administered with an injection, could be used in conjunction with approved antiviral pills to shorten treatment to four weeks. Current treatments with approved antiviral agents typically require from 12 to 24 weeks. Regulus said all patients treated with a combination of its drug candidate and simeprevir (Olysio), ledipasvir and sofosbuvir (Harvoni), or daclatasvir (Daklinza) had no detectable levels of HCV RNA after 12 weeks of treatment. The response rate was 97 percent at eight weeks.

—Verily, the life sciences spinout from Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG) (the company formerly known as Google), has signed a lease in South San Francisco, CA, for its headquarters, according to the San Francisco Business Times. It will move the first of 400 people up from Mountain View by the end of 2016, and the space can hold up to 1,000 employees. Verily is taking over 400,000 square feet that used to be occupied by Onyx Pharmaceuticals, which Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) bought in 2013 and cut back drastically last year.

—Mast Therapeutics (NYSE: MSTX), a San Diego biopharma specializing in sickle cell disease and heart failure, said it raised $8 million in a secondary public offering of more than 29 million shares, priced at nearly 28 cents a share.

—Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: [[ticker:GILD]) won two additional FDA approvals for its blockbuster hepatitis C drugs in patients with advanced liver disease. FiercePharma’s Tracy Staton did a nice job framing the approvals within the context of the latest HCV news.

—Akarna Therapeutics, a startup developing small-molecule drugs targeting inflammatory and fibrotic diseases with no approved treatment, said it has raised $15 million in a Series B financing backed by a new investor Forbion Capital Partners, and existing investors New Science Ventures and Third Point Ventures. Akarna, which has offices in San Diego and Cambridge, England, is moving its lead candidate through proof-of-concept studies in patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a progressive fatty-liver disease associated with diabetes and obesity.

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

—Photo courtesy of Anthony Quintano via a Creative Commons license.