Friday, October 18, 2013

Deals Of The Week: Academic Drug-Discovery Alliance Capturing Industry's Notice

Nashville hosted the first annual conference of the Academic Drug Discovery Consortium

It’s become a familiar story in biopharma, as Big Pharma X announces that in the wake of the patent cliff, health care-spending pressures in Europe and diminished returns from internal R&D, it will be forced to cut back on R&D spending and make staff reductions primarily in sales and lab positions.

As the industry retrenches on early drug-discovery work, however, the need for innovation has not diminished and so the private sector frequently looks more and more to the academy for early research breakthroughs that might translate into therapies that will bolster the quarterly earnings reports a decade from now. In an effort to take advantage of that trend, some of the more forward-thinking university-based drug-discovery outfits in the U.S. have banded together to create a consortium they hope will facilitate and ease partnerships between academic institutions and the biopharmaceutical industry.

The brainchild of a meeting in Baltimore two autumns ago, the Academic Drug Discovery Consortium was more or less dreamed up by Barbara Slusher, director of the Translational Program at the Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and Jeffrey Conn, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, with input from three other founding institutions: University of North Carolina, Harvard University and University of California, San Francisco.

But in a relatively short time, ADDC’s membership has grown to 83 institutions, including six outside the U.S., and more than 550 individual members. And, just as importantly, big pharma has taken notice.

“They started out with two groups, Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins, and now they have 83 members,” said Bruce Harris, Roche’s director of academic alliances and an attendee and speaker at ADDC’s first annual conference Oct. 9-11 in Nashville.” All of these institutions are trying to incorporate drug discovery and translate some of the biological discoveries occurring in their laboratories into drug-discovery projects and, if you think about it, that’s an incredible resource for the industry and the early portion of our pipelines.”

It is a necessary development as well. “The area I work in, CNS, probably has been hit the hardest because it’s a risk area where companies are decreasing their internal efforts and several companies have just gotten out (altogether),” said Slusher, co-founder and president of ADDC.

She and Harris both point to an increased government funding interest in translational research that has occurred more or less in tandem with private industry’s cutbacks in discovery work. Specifically, they site the NIH Roadmap efforts undertaken during the tenure of former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni. “This has been a major change in the pharmaceutical industry,” Slusher said. “But as pharma has been decreasing some of its internal efforts, simultaneously what you see is NIH increasing its interest in activities in discovery and translation.”

While overall NIH funding has been roughly flat in recent years, she noted, funding for its National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) was increased by 11% for federal fiscal year 2013.

ADDC also reflects the exponential growth taking place in academic drug discovery. There were six U.S. academic institutions performing drug-discovery research in 1990, a number that had nearly tripled as of a decade ago. Now, there are more than 100 such units, and 78 of them have membership in ADDC, Slusher pointed out.

In addition to its domestic members, ADDC also has drawn the support of six international research outfits – the Centre of Applied Medical Research at the University of Navarra in Spain, the Karolinska Institute’s Chemical Biology Consortium Sweden, the genetic engineering and biotechnology labs at Shaqra University in Saudi Arabia, the Platform of Chemical Biology and ADME at the University of Strasbourg in France, the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre and Cancer Research UK.

While ADDC has a focus on facilitating partnerships with the private sector, Harris thinks another important role it can play is fostering research efforts across national borders. “I could easily see these U.S.-based academic institutions collaborating on drug-discovery work with their European colleagues,” he said. “Science is global and so are economies, so for them to work together without national boundaries is just natural.”

As Roche searches for programs and assets to invest in at the academic level, Harris said his emphasis will be on the company’s therapeutic areas of focus – oncology, neuroscience and infectious disease. Those priorities dovetail well with what is occurring in U.S. academic research – of the ADDC centers, 73% say they work in oncology, 65% in infectious disease, 63% in neurological disorders and 45% in immunology.

One of ADDC’s initial goals is to create a searchable database of the projects being undertaken by member institutions. Both institutional and individual membership in ADDC is free, meaning this should be a significant resource for academic alliance seekers, like Roche’s Harris. (The organization also is not planning to take a cut from members’ tech transfer deals as a funding mechanism. Instead, it has lined up more than 20 biopharma and service provider firms to sponsor ADDC activities so far, Slusher said.)

Meanwhile, ADDC has no plans, in the near term at least, to serve as a central negotiating point for tech transfer deals or to develop uniform documents and practices for such transactions. Harris said right now that activity seems neither necessary nor terribly feasible.

“I’m not sure that it would be useful to standardize all of the legal documents and arrangements because each university has its own mission within a given state or [based upon] who is supporting it,” Harris added. “They have to go by their own regulations, so having a common set of documents across multiple tech transfer offices at U.S. universities would be a monumental challenge, I think, and probably expensive from a legal point of view.”

And while we await a slew of deals between ADDC member institutions and the biopharma industry, we present this week’s roundup of ....

MedImmune/Spirogen/ADC Therapeutics: AstraZeneca’s biologics unit MedImmune will expand its early oncology pipeline with a new platform to make potent antibody-drug conjugates through the acquisition of U.K.-based Spirogen. Britain’s second-biggest drug maker said it was acquiring privately held Spirogen Oct. 15, paying up $200 million upfront and with another $240 million in potential earn-outs based on predefined milestones for Spirogen’s ADC technology, which has the potential to directly target cancer tumors while protecting healthy cells. Spirogen has developed a novel class of cytotoxic “warheads” based on pyrrolobenzodiazepine (PBDs), which are DNA minor-grove binding agents that bind to specific sites of DNA in cancer cells, according to MedImmune. This blocks the cell division and growth without distorting the DNA helix of cancer cells, which potentially could prevent the emergence of drug resistance. AstraZeneca is in the midst of a concerted push in oncology under the direction of CEO Pascal Soriot, who has revamped the company’s R&D direction over the past year and selected oncology as one of three focal therapeutic areas for the company. MedImmune now is focused on two key areas in oncology development – ADCs and immune-mediated cancer therapy – and says the acquisition of Spirogen fits that strategy perfectly. In connection with the deal, AstraZeneca simultaneously announced a coinciding agreement with Swiss-based ADC Therapeutics, which has a licensing agreement with Spirogen. Under that arrangement AstraZeneca will pay $20 million to take an equity investment in the company. The investment will be matched by Auven Therapeutics, the majority shareholder in both ADC Therapeutics and Spirogen. AstraZeneca will collaborate with ADC Therapeutics to develop two programs from a defined list and pay an undisclosed upfront payment and development milestones. ADC Therapeutics will have a profit-sharing arrangement and gets the option to co-promote one of the products in the U.S. The products to be developed using Spirogen’s technology are preclinical assets, so the latest deal will not yield commercially viable new medicines for several years. It is not yet clear when the products could move forward into clinical tests. Spirogen has been developing its PBD technology for more than 10 years, including a standalone PBD agent in a Phase II study in acute myeloid leukemia. Its business model has been to partner its technology with pharma and biotech for use in the development of novel drugs. It has a number of industry collaborations, including collaborations with Genmab in June 2013, Genentech in 2011 and with ADC Therapeutics announced in 2012. - Sten Stovall

AstraZeneca/Taris Biomedical: Bladder-disease focused Taris Biomedical signed a research agreement with AstraZeneca Oct. 16 to work on novel treatments for bladder cancer. No financial details were disclosed, but the pharma gets an option to license any products resulting from the collaboration. The partnership will involve using Taris’ proprietary delivery platform in combination with targeted bladder cancer drugs developed by AstraZeneca. The Lexington, Mass.-based biotech says its technology involves a soft and flexible device that is deployed into and retrieved from the patient’s bladder “using standard urological office procedures.” The technology is designed to provide continuous local delivery of a therapeutic agent to the bladder for days or weeks. “Their novel technology has the potential to enable the delivery of the right drugs to the tumor tissue in the right concentration and over a prolonged period,” said Susan Galbraith, head of AstraZeneca’s Oncology Innovative Medicines Unit in a release. “This could combine the ability to target the right tissue – the tumor – with the right genetically targeted therapy and therefore represent a step change in the treatment of this disease.” Taris is a clinical-stage firm focused on developing therapies for bladder cancer, overactive bladder and interstitial cystitis. Its lead candidate, LiRIS, is in Phase II in interstitial cystitis. In April, the biotech raised $12.5 million in a Series C round funded by returning investors Flagship Ventures, Flybridge Capital Partners, Polaris Partners and Third Rock Ventures. - Joseph Haas

AmpliPhi Biosciences/University of Leicester: U.S. company AmpliPhi BioSciences announced an agreement Oct. 17 with a British academic group that has succeeded in identifying and characterizing bacteriophage (“phage”) that kill pathogenic strains of Clostridium difficile, a major cause of hospital-acquired severe diarrhea and vomiting. The University of Leicester  researchers will collaborate with AmpliPhi and another U.K. research team at the University of Glasgow on using the “bacteria-eating viruses” for clinical applications, with AmpliPhi funding the research, making milestone payments and paying royalties on any eventual products sales. In return, AmpliPhi receives rights to patents and intellectual property covering the Clostridium difficile-targeted phage research.
In a September 2013 report, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention called C difficile an urgent threat, causing 250,000 infections every year in the U.S. AmpliPhi believes it is conducting the only phage-based development program for this critical condition. Phage could yield ideal candidates for treating gastrointestinal infections, as they infect and kill a specific strain or species of bacteria, and should not affect beneficial gut bacteria. The research agreement is the third by AmpliPhi in the past six months, having linked up previously with the synthetic biology company Intrexon and the U.S Army. AmpliPhi expects its first therapeutic phage-based product, targeting Staphylococcus aureus and developed in collaboration with the U.S. military, to enter clinical trials next year. AmpliPhi is headquartered in Richmond, Va., but has operations in Colworth, U.K., and Sydney, Australia. - John Davis

Zydus Cadila/Pieris: India’s Zydus Cadila is teaming with Germany’s Pieris to develop and commercialize multiple novel protein therapeutics derived from the anticalin protein molecule. In an Oct. 16 announcement, the companies said the partnership would combine Pieris capabilities in drug discovery and early drug development with Zydus’ expertise in regulatory affairs and development and manufacturing of biologics. No financial terms were disclosed, but the companies said in a release that they will share licensing revenues under mutually agreed-upon terms. The collaboration is intended to develop candidates to proof-of-concept and then seek out-licensing in Pieris’ commercial territories. The most advanced program under the partnership is PRS-110, an anticalin protein specific for c-MET, a target that has been validated in a broad spectrum of tumor types. The candidate is a pure antagonist due to monovalent target engagement and in animal models has demonstrated the ability to inhibit ligand-dependent and –independent c-MET activity. - J.A.H.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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