Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Chomp! Wyeth Snaps Up Haptogen

The names are different but the premise seems the same: a struggling big pharma snaps up a promising biologics player to add bite to its large molecule divsion. Less than two weeks after BMS announced its buy-out of next-generation protein player Adnexus, Wyeth broadcast its decision to buy the Scottish biotech Haptogen.

This is the twelfth acquisition by either a big pharma or big biotech in the biologics space since September 1 2006 according to Windhover's Strategic Transactions Database. Does IN VIVO blog see a trend? Hint: Do fish swim?

It's no secret that pharmas have lately had a tough go getting drugs approved. The FDA has approved just 10 new molecular entities through September, representing a 17% drop year-over-year and matching a 10-year nadir, according to a report today by Jim Kumpel, an analyst with Friedman Billings Ramsey. (Kudos to Pharmalot for its posting.)

Desperate to get access to new therapeutic modalities, cash-rish pharmas have spent the last several years trawling for biologics players. Recall these recent deals: Roche's acquisitions of GlycArt Biotechnology and THP; Merck's take-outs of GlycoFi, Abmaxis, and Sirna; GSK's purchase of Domantis; and AZ's $15.6 billion stunner for MedImmune. (Yeah, we're still talking about that deal. If you haven't read our take, click here and here. FYI, there will be even more in the October IN VIVO.)

It's not hard to see why a company like MedImmune would make a pharma salivate--the company's pipeline was full; and they had soup-to-nuts capabilities--from discovery through marketing--in biologics. But why the interest in Adnexus or Haptogen--companies with interesting platforms but no late stage products?

It's easy: Access. Most companies just launching large molecules programs are shut out of the most desirable targets because licenses to them--at least through "gold standard" antibody providers such as Medarex and Genmab--have already been given away.

“If you want to develop a product to one of those really important targets—say the CD-20 antibody—you’re blacked out,” notes Donald Drakeman, former CEO of Medarex and now with the VC firm Advent Ventures.

Better, it seems, to spend some dough and acquire new platform technologies that provide freedom to operate—for example, GlycoFi’s yeast engineering capabilities or Adnexus’s protein program--than engage in licensing deals that may blow up when a next-generation player gets acquired by a competitor.

The Wyeth/Haptogen deal fits nicely in this paradigm. Wyeth, though comparatively biologics-rich thanks to its acquisition of Genetics Institute about a decade ago and its focus on large molecule Alzheimer's Disease therapies, has had it's own share of pipeline troubles.

According to Cavan Redmond, EVP and general manager of Wyeth's biopharmaceuticals division, the pharma has been on the look-out for "technology driven companies that help us take it [biologics] up a notch, so that we can customize antibodies even more than in the past."

That was certainly the thinking behind the pharma's 2006 deal with Trubion, which included a $40 million up-front payment for access to the biotech's CD-20 therapy for rheumatoid arthritis, Tru-15.

Seems like the same philosophy applies to Haptogen. The Scottish biotech promises it can generate antibodies against targets normally too small to elicit an immune response. In addition, the company has developed novel drug discovery techniques based on the shark immune system. (And you thought it was just a great shark picture. Ha!)

Haptogen's shark platform "has a lot of potential to generate smaller therapuetic proteins that can be taken as oral drugs," Steven Projan, VP and head of biological technologies at Wyeth, told BioWorld Today (subscription required).

Wyeth and Haptogen didn't disclose deal terms, but its doubtful there was big money on the table. Wyeth, after all, is notoriously frugal in the business development department. And, in the biologics space, the pharma tends to pursue one-off opportunities, where it can leverage its own biologics infrastructure to lower the total cost of the deal.

There's no sign that pharma's biologics feeding frenzy will abate anytime soon. Who's next? The IN VIVO Blog's crystal ball is cloudy, so it's hard to say for certain. But companies worthy of keeping an eye on include: Ablynx, which makes camelid antibodies; Biolex, which recently registered for its IPO, and uses the plant Lemna to manufacture its proteins; and Xencor, which produces souped-up antibodies using its proprietary protein engineering platform.

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