Two deals announced this week in Europe appear to herald just such a return to basics, although on closer inspection these older drug discovery methods – searching through natural product libraries for active substances -- and the use of high throughput screening -- have never really gone away.
The first Europe-centered agreement, between France’s Sanofi and Germany’s applied research institute, the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology, involves identifying potential therapeutic substances from natural sources, mainly micro-organisms, to boost the number of antibiotics in development.
It might seem old hat: the venerable old-timer penicillin was isolated from natural sources, for example. Still, the collaborators are introducing a couple of new twists. They are going to work together, as one team in shared labs on analyzing the genetics of micro-organisms, stimulating them to produce new active substances, and identifying those substances with therapeutic potential. It’s part of Sanofi’s drive to get closer to cutting-edge science and external collaborators.
A new facility will be built on the Institute’s campus to house the researchers. Cross-pollination between this collaboration and Sanofi’s on-going alliance with venture-backed biotech Warp Drive Bio, which is scouring the genome of soil samples for examples of natural products with therapeutic potential could be possible. Under that 2012 deal the French pharma gets right-of-first-refusal for all candidates stemming from the target area of the biotech’s first genomic search.
The German researchers have a secret weapon: access to Sanofi’s huge (150,000-plus samples) collection of micro-organisms built up by predecessor companies like Hoechst and Synthelabo, as well as by its own labs. The Fraunhofer Institute, a network or more than 60 research centers mainly based in Germany, with 30% of its funding from the German government and 70% from industry partners, gains from the deal by being able to exploit Sanofi’s collection for non-medical uses with its own partners. In the crop protection area, for instance, Sanofi could develop compounds that have potential as human or animal medicines.
The lack of new classes of anti-infectives nearing the market has horrified many public health experts, who are concerned by the emergence of bacterial resistance to commonly used agents. Thereis not a lot left in the locker to treat life-threatening infections. So it’s good news that other companies, such as Roche, have re-energized their research efforts in the field.
The week’s second European deal involves the setting up of a European joint venture called Hit Discovery Constance GmbH to conduct high-throughput screening (HTS) for biotech and academic partners, and to act as a storage and management facility for compound libraries.
HTS has been a disappointment to some; nonetheless it is now commonplace throughout industry and is often used to narrow down the choice of compounds likely to bind to targets, which are then refined through computer-based analysis and other processes.
Hit Discovery Constance is based in facilities in Constance, Germany, that have had a long line of previous owners – most recently Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., and before that Nycomed SPA and Altana Pharma GmbH. Three European companies – Germany’s Lead Discovery Center, Italy’s Axxam SRL and Belgium’s Centre for Drug Design and Discovery - have set up the joint venture to run a fully-automated robotic screening system using a library of compounds assembled by the partners. Combined with other novel biochemical, bioassay and HTS technologies developed by the three partners, Hit Discovery Constance will be one of the largest screening hubs worldwide.
The revival of technology previously thought to be a disappointment was also featured in the standout deal that kicked off the J. P. Morgan meeting, between RNAi developer Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. of the U.S. and Sanofi’s biotech unit Genzyme.--John Davis
Moderna/Alexion: A number of deals were made and broken within the RNA space during the J.P. Morgan gathering, including Moderna Therapeutics Inc.’s news it landed another major partner for its preclinical messenger RNA technology. Rare disease specialist Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. will pay $100 million upfront to purchase 10 product options and is taking a $25 million equity stake in the company. Moderna will use its mRNA platform to discover molecules for rare diseases and then transfer all rights to Alexion, which will handle preclinical and clinical work on the molecules. Moderna will be eligible for clinical-stage and regulatory milestones as well as high-single-digit royalties on any resulting products.
This deal is similar to one Moderna struck with AstraZeneca PLC in March 2013 for the rights to more than 40 cardiovascular assets. The British pharma paid $240 million for the options. In both deals, Moderna will be eligible for undisclosed clinical and regulatory milestones, as well as royalties on any products that result. Moderna’s technology is designed to use messenger RNA to spur the production of therapeutic proteins. A day later, Moderna also announced that it was spinning out a satellite company, Onkaido Therapeutics to focus exclusively on oncology. Moderna is providing Onkaido’s first $20 million in capital.--Lisa Lamotta
Regeneron/Geisinger: Cash-rich Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.’s collaboration with Geisinger Health System on studying genetic determinants of human disease is one of the most ambitious efforts to date by a drug company to systematically apply genomic sequencing to the discovery of new drugs.
The deal is broad and long-ranging, initially signed for five years, but with a horizon that could go out 10 years. Announced on Jan. 13 at the start of the J.P. Morgan meeting, it calls for Regeneron to perform the heavy lifting on sequencing and genotyping and for Geisinger to provide samples collected from its patient volunteers. From Regeneron’s perspective, correlating genetic variations and human diseases could yield insights about disease and biomarkers leading to development of better drugs. Geisinger, at the same time, is looking for funding for its own research programs and to incorporate genetic advances into clinical care of its patients. Regeneron separately but simultaneously said it was creating a subsidiary, the Regeneron Genetics Center LLC, based at its Tarrytown campus, to pursue both large-scale and family-specific genomics studies.
The research collaboration will seek to sequence a minimum of 100,000 patients who are part of Geisinger, which treats three million people a year. During the initial five-year collaboration term, the Regeneron Genetics Center will perform sequencing and genotyping to generate de-identified genomic data. The size and scope of the study are meant to allow great precision in identifying and validating the associations between genes and human disease. No money changed hands, but Regeneron will pay Geisinger for its services. Down the road, if drugs or diagnostics come to market, Geisinger will receive small royalties on sales of products.--Wendy Diller
Prosensa/GlaxoSmithKline: For our top “No-Deal of the Week,” GlaxoSmithKline has exited its 2009 collaboration in Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) with Prosensa Holding BV, but the Dutch biotech is determined to continue advancing a portfolio of DMD candidates on its own, at least for now.
Few observers were surprised when GSK decided to terminate the partnership Jan. 13, but Prosensa says it hopes to continue developing drisapersen, a Phase III RNA antisense oligonucleotide exon-skipping compound which failed a Phase III trial last September.
In theory, drisapersen and Prosensa’s other candidates, three of which have reached mid-stage clinical development, address the underlying cause of DMD with exon-skipping technology that restores the expression of dystrophin protein. GSK paid $25 million upfront, with the potential for up to $665 million in milestones, in October 2009 for exclusive worldwide rights to drisapersen, as well as options on three other exon-skipping candidates. Although drisapersen demonstrated efficacy, as measured by improvement in the six-minute walk test (6MWT) in two other placebo-controlled trials, the companies announced Sept. 20 that it failed to meet its primary efficacy endpoint in the Phase III DEMAND III study.
Prosensa CEO Hans Schikan did not specify whether Prosensa paid GSK anything to re-acquire its intellectual property rights, including the options GSK had held, but said the multinational pharma holds no downstream rights for any of the DMD candidates. Prosensa earned at least $28 million in milestones under the collaboration with GSK, but Schikan said that cash was secondary in importance to the role GSK played in advancing drisapersen. “After this collaboration with GSK, and thanks to their commitment, we now have the largest database in DMD,” he said. He noted Prosensa probably never would have been in a position to develop this compound in this way. More than 300 patients have been treated in various clinical trials.
Schikan would not be pinned down on whether Prosensa will seek another co-development partner for drisapersen. The first order of business is to meet with stakeholders to see if there is a regulatory path forward for the compound, he said.--Joseph Haas
McKesson/Celesio: Our other notable “No-Deal” was McKesson Corp.’s announcement Jan. 13 that it had failed to complete the acquisition of Germany-based drug wholesaler Celesio AG because it did not attain the necessary 75% share position through its tender offer, despite raising its bid to €23.50 per share from the original €23. The acquisition was an effort to expand McKesson’s global reach, but the outcome was contingent on acquiring a minimum of 75% of shares on a fully diluted basis. The bid was announced in October.
McKesson CEO John Hammergren raised the topic during the company’s presentation to the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, also on Jan. 13, and said redoing the tender offer was not a possibility. As a result, the failed offer “clearly puts us back to the drawing board in some respects.”
“Although we remain optimistic that we will continue to find ways to add value to our company through capital deployment and continued scale, it's not clear to us that Celesio will be part of that,” he said. However, asked if a joint venture with Celesio might be an option, he observed, “We obviously have been talking to Celesio for some time about various alternatives. I think clearly there is an opportunity for us to venture with them and jointly buy. In the past, we had the view that an acquisition and the complete control of the asset would give us faster and better throughput than a joint venture would, but clearly a joint venture would be an alternative to consider.”--Scott Steinke