Friday, February 27, 2009

DotW: State of the Union

Okay, we at IVB know that Tuesday night's speech wasn't really a state of the union address. Call Obama's discourse a precursor, a practice run, a preliminary to the real thing coming in 11 months. Whatever you call it, there's no denying the officially unofficial address will likely go down in history as one of the most important events--after the budget, also released this week--of 44's first 100 days. Not necessarily because, as Ezra Klein at American Prospect notes, it was a particularly inspiring--or terrorizing--speech. But because "he didn’t wrap his agenda in a lot of rhetoric about America’s mettle or hide it behind stories and icons. He just sort of said it." Imagine.

In a week where the Dow plummeted to lows not seen since 1997 and news on rising unemployment and falling home sales only added to the gloom, it's perhaps natural to take stock of the biopharma state of the union. Sadly, as investors worried over the mind-boggling $3.6 trillion federal budget Obama submitted Thursday, the stock prices of pharma companies, med-tech outfits and insurers dropped, illustrating again that there is no such thing as a recession proof industry.

As the saying goes, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a troubled biotech these days. Elan once again made the news with an announcement that it was shedding 230 jobs--half in Ireland and half in California--as it tries to control costs and marshall resources. (No word on the corporate jets.) Meantime, Vanda is the latest company to experience the full brunt of shareholder activism, while Intercytex shows regenerative medicine is still a tough area to grow a business.

And then there's Dynogen, this week's winner of IVB's little engine that couldn't prize. The company declared chapter 7 less than a year after trying to go public via the SPAC--or is it SCRAP?--route. Even as six law firms kvetched about their unpaid legal fees, Dynogen's venture backers, which include Oxford Bioscience Partners, SV Life Sciences, and Abingworth Management, took it on the chin despite sinking $67 million into the IBS developer.

In what is surely a sign of the times, this week Pfizer announced it was discontinuing work on two Phase III primary care products, PD 332,334 for generalized anxiety and esreboxetine for fibromyalgia, to redirect resources to drug candidates with more potential. The news shows that even Big Pharma face tough decisions these days about which programs to move forward and which to table. Could the news mark the beginning of the much vaunted Pfizer transformation CEO Kindler has talked about in the days since moving to acquire Wyeth? This blogger is reserving judgement until the New York pharma actually does some thing revolutionary, such as not just killing the programs but outlicensing them. (For another opinion on Pfizer's transormation potential be sure to check out this hilarous youtube video by a former Ann Arbor, MI-based employee.)

Meantime when it comes to dealmaking in the biopharma state, the big news this week was partnerships gone awry. Astellas made the decidely un-Japanese decision to go hostile in its quest for CV Therapeutics, despite the fact that the decision means Astellas violates a longstanding standstill agreement tied to the California biotech's Lexiscan imaging agent. The Roche/Genentech saga continues apace, with Roche marshalling its economic might by issuiing over $30 billion in bonds in the past two weeks, and Genentech preparing to woo investors at its annual R&D day in NYC on Monday. (Better be some good danish at that meeting...)

Synta’s shocking news that it was halting a Phase III trial of metastatic melanoma drug elesclomol due to excess mortality likely portends an end to its rich partnership with GlaxoSmithKline. Originally inked in 2007, the agreement has added just over $100 million to Synta’s coffers. And, as we wrote on Monday, Johnson & Johnson and Basilea seem poised to begin a very public fight over milestone payments tied to regulatory approval of the antibiotic ceftobiprole. Frustrated over European and US regulatory delays associated with the drug, Basilea announced it was seeking arbitration to obtain compensation from partner J&J for outstanding milestones and the value of the opportunity lost in not having ceftobiprole on the market.

Here at IVB, we know that not all deals are created equal. We, the bloggers, in order to form a more perfect industry, provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare, bring you another edition of Deals of the Week. (Domestic tranquility is not, however, guaranteed.)

Merck Serono/Ambrx: Merck Serono and Ambrx formed a more perfect union this week as they expanded their existing relationship to include the development and commercialization of a preclinical biological multiple sclerosis candidate, ARX424. According to the deal, announced Feb. 24, Darmstadt, Germany-based Merck Serono gains exclusive global development and commercial rights for the MS compound. In exchange, Merck Serono will pay an undisclosed sum to Ambrx, plus pick up an equity stake. Ambrx also stands to receive undisclosed clinical, regulatory and commercial milestone payments for drugs that make it to market, plus royalties on global sales, as part of the package. Furthermore, it has the option down the line of converting royalty rights in the US to a profit-and-loss sharing agreement. San Diego-based Ambrx is one of those increasingly rare beasts: a biotech with plenty of cash resources that's announcing staff increases rather than layoffs. In the last 20 months, Ambrx raked in $60 million thanks to the recent equity deal and milestone payments from its alliance partners, which also include Merck and Eli Lilly. Thanks to these resources, CEO Steve Kaldor says, conservatively speaking, his firm should be able to get through late 2011 or early 2012 with no need for new financing or equity deals. "We continue to sustain a multi-year runway while growing our biologics product portfolio and innovative platform" he said. Of course, it helps that Ambrx's RECODE (reconstituted chemically orthogonal directed engineering) technology allows the company to endow native proteins with new therapeutic propertis. And readers you know what that means. Even if the company is devoting much of its efforts to creating first-in-class molecules, there is the potential to use RECODE to create follow-on biologics, be they true generics or copy cat molecules with a twist. It's an area of intense interest to Big Pharma these days, especially given the Obama Administration's willingness to include FOB legislation in the most recent Congressional budget. (Teva and Merck dominate the Big Pharma FOB horse race currently thanks to their deal making in recent months, a topic highlighted in the February issue of IN VIVO.) As for the MS compound that was central to the Merck Serono/Ambrx deal, there are few details on the exact nature of the protein in question. "It may be a pioneering target or a follow-on biologic. We are not divulging what class it is," Kaldor told our sister publication "The Pink Sheet" DAILY. Whatever class it is, it's IVB's bet that Ambrx will not long remain an independent company. Merck Serono is our pick to buy it.

CSL/Xencor: Any doubts about interest in next generation technology that provides souped-up antibodies, look no further than news that Aussie biopharma company CSL signed an R&D alliance with Xencor to gain access to the privately-held biotech's Xmab technology, which allows the optimization of antibodies to create molecules with increased potency and longer half-lives. Details of the agreement--from its apparent breadth to the size of the upfront payment and downstream milestones--were lacking. It's the second such alliance Xencor has signed this month. Earlier in February, the biotech announced it was teaming up with Human Genome Sciences to use Xmab to create better versions of the Rockville, Maryland-based company's antibodies. Details of that transaction weren't disclosed, either. For the privately-held Xencor the two transactions--even if modest in size--likely provide much needed non-dilutive funding. The company, which has raised $130 million since its 1997 founding, last raised money in Oct. 2007 when it tacked an additional $15 million onto a 2006 $45 million Series E, which was led by MedImmune Ventures with additional backing by Novo Nordisk and HealthCare Ventures. (New investors in the Series E extension included Oxford Bioscience Partners and Merlin Nexus.) It's hard to tell how long Xencor's backers are willing to subsidize the company, but despite numerous partnerships--including deals with Centocor, Genentech, and Boehringer Ingelheim, no suitors have been sufficiently impressed with the technology to want to acquire the Monrovia, CA-based company despite pharma's 2007 land-grab for next generation antibody technologies. It could be that companies are still waiting for validation that the technology works as advertised: molecules in Xencor's internal pipeline are still at a very early stage. The biotech's lead product, an anti-CD30 for Hodgkin lymphoma and other T-cell lymphomas, is only in Phase I development.

Actelion/GeneraMedix: In a continuing bid to strengthen its position in the pulmonary arterial hypertension market, Switzerland's Actelion announced Monday that it would pay an undisclosed amount for worldwide development and commercialization rights to an IV formulation of epoprostenol from the injectable generics group GeneraMedix. Approved by FDA in June last year, this improved formulation of GlaxoSmithKline's (now generic) Flolan offers more convenient storage options than epoprostenol alternatives, including another generic from Teva approved last year. While not likely to be a large deal, the tie-up makes sense. It allows Actelion to leverage its existing infrastructure and expertise in this specialist field, where it already sells the lead drug Tracleer (bosentan). But there is no way epoprostenol will come anywhere close to replacing Tracleer, which sold CHF 1,294 million in 2008, and is under increasing pressure from contenders marketed by Gilead and United Therapeutics. (A generic version will also be available come 2015 for those keeping track.) According to analysts at Piper Jaffray, who estimate total worldwide sales of IV PAH therapies are worth about $200 million to $300 million, epoprostenol may add $30 million to $50 million in sales before 2014. To make up the revenue gap from potential lost Tracleer sales, look for Actelion, which has a sizeable war chest--approximately CHF 1.1 billion in cash at the end of 2008--to sign additional deals in the coming months.

Cephalon/Arana: Arana's mystery buyer has a name: Cephalon. On Feb. 26, Aussie biotech Arana announced that it was involved in take-over discussions. Trading on the Australian Stock Exchange was halted in anticipation of a buy-out. One day later Cephalon revealed that it intends to offer A$1.40-a-share for the biotech, a 69% premium to Arana's closing stock price on Feb. 25. If the offer goes through at the current price--and it does have the support of Arana's independent directors absent a superior proposal from another party--it will be worth approximately A$318 million ($207 million USD). In support of its bid, Cephalon took steps to secure nearly 20% of Arana's issued shares from the Aussie outfit's two largest shareholders, Start-Up Australia Ventures and Rockwell Securities Ltd., before launching the formal offer. The deal represents a slight shift in Cephalon's deal-making strategy in recent months in that it is not tied to any contingent value rights. Recall that Cephalon's recent $100 million tie-up with Ception was an option-based deal that gave the Frazer, PA-based company the right to buy the smaller biotech for an additional $250 million plus milestones and earn-outs if a Phase IIb/III trial of Ception's antibody reslizumab for eosinophilic asthma panned out. But the recent deal is certainly in-line with Cephalon's stated desire to build a larger presence in both biologics and inflammatory disease. Together with the ImmuPharma compounds Cephalon recently locked up and Ception's reslizumab, Arana's portfolio of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) alpha blockers, gives Cephalon a tidy pipeline of drugs aimed at diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis. Indeed, Arana's Phase II novel anti-TNF domain antibody for psoriasis, ART621, was the primary driver of the deal. Of course, it helps that in addition to a novel pipeline of products, Arana also comes with a guaranteed revenue stream: thanks to strong IP in the anti-TNF space, the biotech receives royalties from Abbott Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson on Humira and Remicade.

Medtronic/CoreValve: As we wrote earlier this week, you know Medtronic's $1.03 billion buying spree is only the beginning, not the end, of the long-anticipated land grab around the percutaneous valve replacement field and its two major sub-markets--aortic and mitral valve devices. There has been a lag of several years since Edwards Lifesciences did the first major deal in the space, acquiring aortic player Percutaneous Valve Technology (PVT) in late 2003. But the promise of the market has continued to grow as investment remained active, technology improved, and the competition increaed. Give Medtronic credit for the executing the old "shock and awe" routine with perfection, by picking up a pair of percutaneous players in quick succession: CoreValve Inc. and Ventor Technologies Ltd. For Medtronic, these deals represent not just an investment in technology building. In CoreValve, the device behemoth gets a company that is already competing aggressively in the European aortic market, where CoreValve's smaller-sized system is running neck-and-neck with long-time leader Edwards. The deal could spark a torrent of additional partnering, especially as Edwards Lifesciences and St. Jude looked to build armamentariums competitive with Medtronic's.

Interested in future deals-of-the-week candidates? Check out the the January issue of Medtech Insight for the full story on percutaneous aortic valve players, and the technical and operational challenges facing the field.

(Photo courtesy of flickr user tsevis through a creative commons license.)

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