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West Coast Bio Roundup: Illumina, CRISPR, Orexigen, Ambry & More

Xconomy San Francisco — 

El Niño-driven storms returned to California this week to fill up reservoirs and snarl commutes, although we’ve got nothing to compare with what’s happening down South.

A few biotech parades were rained on out West. The two rival parties battling for CRISPR patent rights tried to undermine each other’s cases, filing documents to kick off their head-to-head battle before a patent office judge. A new study of Orexigen Therapeutics’s weight-loss drug Contrave cast doubt on the company’s claims of cardiovascular benefit, and a former FDA official called for tighter restrictions on the drug. And Five Prime Therapeutics said partner GlaxoSmithKline was bailing out of their cancer development deal.

How about sunshine? A Southern California genetic testing company said it would allow public access to a database that pools de-identified exome sequencing data from 10,000 customers. And there was finally some climate change at Illumina, the genome sequencing giant; CEO Jay Flatley is stepping aside after 17 years at the helm.

These stories and more are on the near horizon. Let’s get to the roundup.

—The CRISPR patent interference case between the University of California, Berkeley and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard began in earnest this week. (Stat has a fun primer here on what’s happening and what’s at stake.) Documents filed by each party give clues to each side’s strategy in the complex fight. UC lawyers could argue, for example, that the Broad made a serious clerical error, while the Broad lawyers outlined ways in which claims in their patent have nothing to do with claims in the UC patent application.

—Diagnostic firm Ambry Genetics of Aliso Viejo, CA, said it would pool genetic data from 10,000 customers who have been tested for breast or ovarian cancer and share the database with the public. The firm will only release the data in aggregate, to protect privacy. Ambry CEO Charles Dunlop told the New York Times that the firm has spent $20 million on the project; he is motivated in part by his own Stage 4 prostate cancer, which is now in remission.

—There was more fallout this week from San Diego-based Orexigen’s (NASDAQ: OREX) ill-fated decision last year to file a patent application based on a premature evaluation of a trial weighing the cardiovascular side effects of its weight-loss drug Contrave. Because of Orexigen’s move, the trial, run by the Cleveland Clinic’s Steve Nissen, was terminated early. Results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week. In an accompanying editorial, former FDA deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein recommended more restrictions on the drug.

—Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), the San Diego-based maker of genomic sequencing equipment, said Monday that president Francis deSouza will take over as CEO in July. Jay Flatley, who has run the company since 1999, will stay on as executive chairman. He has been involved in two Illumina spinouts—the consumer genomics firm Helix, and Grail, which aims to develop a “liquid biopsy” blood test for cancer. Before he joined Illumina in 2013, deSouza was a top executive at the security software firm Symantec.

—Tizona Therapeutics of South San Francisco, CA, said it reeled in $43 million in Series B cash to bring its total fundraising to $70 million. The company, run by Novartis and Onyx Pharmaceuticals veteran Pablo Cagnoni, is working on treatments for cancer and autoimmune diseases, with its lead candidate set to enter clinical trials in 2017.

—San Diego’s Aspyrian Therapeutics said it was cleared by the FDA to start clinical studies of its potential head-and-neck cancer treatment, which uses near-infrared light to activate a tumor-killing toxin.

—Five Prime Therapeutics (NASDAQ: FPRX) revealed in its year-end financial report that development partner GlaxoSmithKline was ending their collaboration on FP-1039, which the partners were testing in two types of lung cancer. In January the companies halted a trial in squamous non small cell lung cancer, and this week GSK said it would hand rights to FP-1039 back to Five Prime once the partners finished enrolling patients in a Phase 1b mesothelioma trial.

—Immusoft of Seattle has acquired Discovery Genomics of Minneapolis for an undisclosed sum. The deal gives Immusoft, which is developing genetically reprogrammed B cells to treat disease, access to a different kind of reprogramming technology. Immusoft said it will use Discovery’s Sleeping Beauty Transposon System in B cells to treat the rare Hurler Syndrome, also known as MPS I.

—San Diego’s AnaptysBio, a developer of antibody-drug candidates to treat inflammation and cancer, said it has begun dosing human patients with an experimental drug for severe adult asthma and peanut allergies.

—San Diego’s NuVasive (NASDAQ: NUVA), which makes surgical tools and implants for spine surgery, said Monday it has agreed to acquire Mega Surgical, the company’s exclusive distributor in Brazil, for an undisclosed sum. NuVasive also said it plans to raise $550 million through convertible debt.

—Xoma (NASDAQ: XOMA) of Berkeley, CA, said this week it would pull the plug on its lead drug candidate, gevokizumab, and lay off half its staff, the San Francisco Business Times reported.

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

Photo courtesy of Euphro via a Creative Commons license.