Friday, October 03, 2008

DotW: Angst

The mood of the nation is undeniably dark. The turmoil on Wall Street is enough to give even the most steady individual palpitations. And the antics on the Hill--don't get us started. Even Silicon Valley, that bastion of wealth and exorbitantly priced homes, looks to be in jeopardy according to today's New York Times.

Despite the counter-cyclical nature of the biopharma industry and its relative immunity to the widening credit crunch, skies in biopharma land are also far from rosy. Roche still hasn't managed to close the deal with Genentech, but according to the WSJ, remains steadfast that it has the capital it needs to get it done. So what if the two companies haven't agreed on a price? (It's worth noting that if negotiations drag on much longer, the Swiss pharma's original offer of $89-a-share may start to look better and better given the roiling market and the news that Raptiva use has now been linked to at least one case of PML. Hmm. Maybe patience is a virtue.)

Moreover, discussion of biopharma's lack of R&D productivity has been replaced by talk of an "innovation crisis" in certain circles. A small but intrepid group of readers weighed in with their own thoughts: 63% agree their isn't enough innovation to sustain the industry, while 37% remain more optimistic. (Note there's still time to have your say if you haven't already.)

We aren't sure if the folks at Pfizer and Merck see the innovation glass as half-empty or half-full, but we're guessing the former based on this week's news flow. Forced to take a hard look at their pipelines, both Merck and Pfizer responded this week by terminating R&D programs that were suddenly too expensive to justify. In the case of Merck, it was their troubled Phase III obesity drug, taranabant, a close cousin of Sanofi-Aventis’ rimonabant (Acomplia/Zimulti). Pfizer announced an even bigger retrenchment, forsaking early stage R&D in heart disease, obesity, bone health, and other areas, an amazing turn-around for a company's who bread-and-butter has been primary care blockbusters such as Norvasc and Lipitor.

And then there's the news that Lilly is ImClone's mysterious suitor, but not quite ready for its big reveal. In a statement released Wednesday night, Carl Icahn announced that “the large Pharma company has completed due diligence and made a proposal not subject to financing or further due diligence," but has asked ImClone to stay mum about its identity until the negotiations are finished. Oh, Carl you are so coy. It's enough to make a grown person cry.

If your calls for mommy dearest have gone unheard, fear not. We have the antidote for your furrowed brow--and no, it's doesn't call for watching send-ups of Sarah Palin or spiking the water supply with antidepressants. (We're pretty sure that's already been tried.) It's time once again for...

Genentech/GlycArt/Roche: The boards of Roche and Genentech may not be able to agree on a price for Genentech, but that isn't stopping scientists at the two companies from working together. (Isn't it special when family members play nice?) On Friday came the announcement that the South San Francisco biotech was teaming up with Roche's subsidiary to develop GlycArt's GA101 molecule, a humanized, souped-up anti-CD20 antibody currently in early stage clinical trials for various leukemias. As part of the deal, Genentech will record $105 million in R&D expenses as part of its third quarter 2008 results. The three companies will, however, share certain development costs and Genentech will receive US commercialization rights in the US. This is not Genentech's first foray into the development of an anti-CD20 antibody. The company, of course, markets Rituxan, which was developed by scientists at BiogenIdec. But that drug is far from perfect and a certain percentage of patients fail to respond to the antibody. That's allowed next-generation antibody players such as GlycArt, Xencor, BioWa, and GlycoFi (now part of Merck) to develop souped up versions of the molecule using optimization technologies as we discussed here. In fact, this latest announcement may spell trouble for Xencor. Back in 2004, it inked a deal with Genentech to develop a better version of Rituxan using its own protein engineering technologies.

Wyeth/Advanced Life Sciences: It's no secret that public biotechs walk a tight-rope when they sign alliances--the deals give them some necessary cash and validation, but investors don't always like them. How to solve this conundrum? Sign a development pact that's limited to a geographic area of the world. On Wednesday Advanced Life Sciences and Wyeth announced a commercialization pact for ALS's long delayed antibiotic, cethromycin. Wyeth will market the drug, which is related to Sanofi-Aventis's Ketek, in all parts of Asia except Japan, where Abbott Labs has rights to the compound. As part of the deal, Wyeth is purchasing a 4.9% equity stake in ALS and will pay the company milestones and sales royalties based on the future development of the antibiotic. The commercial partnership is a significant step forward for Advanced Life Sciences, which has worked hard to shore up its balance sheet by inking debt and equity financing agreements so that it can remain in business until cethryomycin's approval. Unfortunately concerns that Advanced Life Science's drug may also cause the liver toxicities and patient deaths observed with Ketek use have meant that the antibiotic must complete additional trials before it can be approved in Asia. (Advanced Life Sciences recently submitted the drug to the FDA for approval.)

Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals/Advinus: Yet another company goes to South Asia to access cheaper drug discovery and early clinical development expertise. On Tuesday, Advinus, an India-based CRO, and Ortho-McNeil, a division of Johnson & Johnson, announced they were teaming up to develop molecules against a variety of undisclosed disease targets. Historically OMJP's interests have been in pain, infectious disease, and GI disorders, while Advinus has focused on metabolic diseases. Like the previous deal Advinus signed in 2006 with Merck, the agreement with OMPJ gives Advinus responsibility for discovery and clinical work through Phase IIa, at which point the J&J group has the option to advance promising candidate drugs into late stage clinical trials. If it does so, OMPJ picks up responsibility--and the tab--for worldwide commercialization. Deal terms were slightly richer for the CRO this time around, perhaps proof that the company has established itself as one of Asia's service companies of choice. As was the case with the Merck tie-up, Advinus will receive an upfront payment of an undisclosed amount. If it delivers two targets to OMJP, it will receive an additional $247 million plus royalties on sales of any future drug products. (In its deal with Merck, the Indian company gets just $149 million plus royalties on future sales for delivering the same number of targets.)

GE Healthcare/MicroCal: General Electric, GE HealthCare's parent company, continues to get beaten in the market, announcing Wednesday that it would gladly accept $3 billion from Warren Buffett (So would we!). But the financial upheaval didn't stop the med-tech group from acquiring the privately-held instrument maker MicroCal for an undisclosed sum. MicroCal's proprietary platform dovetails nicely with GE Healthcare's existing BiaCore platform, providing scientists with detailed information on the structure, function, and binding properties of biomolecules like proteins and antibodies. The move shows that GE Healthcare continues to eye the competitive tools space, and should give pause to companies like Perkin Elmer and Thermo Fisher. Indeed, the conglomerate has inked four other deals this year alone, including the take-out of Whatman PLC, maker of filtration and cell sample preparation technologies, for $702 million and the recent $990 million purchase of respiratory device specialist Vital Signs. Massachusetts-based MicroCal was pretty long in the tooth despite its private status--it was founded in 1977 by John Brandts, a U. Mass. chemistry professor. The private equity group Riverside Partners, which first invested in MicroCal in 1999, was the instrument maker's primary owner.

Covance/WuXi: Just months after unveiling plans to create a JV for preclinical drug testing services in China, WuXi PharmaTech and Covance have scuppered the deal. When the deal was first announced in June, it was heralded as a positive step for both companies: the Covance name appeared to give WuXi added credibility outside Asia, while the collaboration helped the Princeton, NJ-based CRO access the lucrative China market. But the deal wasn't necessarily balanced from the start: WuXi had committed to building the facilty, and for its work Covance was ponying up just $20 million. Though details haven't been fully disclosed, it seems likely that this imbalance coupled with competing priorities at Covance may have derailed the agreement. Recall that Covance recently acquired Eli Lilly's drug development campus in Greenfield Indiana for $50 million. Our sister publication PharmAsia News has the full story.

image from flickr user 'stuck in customs' used under a creative commons license.

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