Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Nektar Takes A Deep Breath

Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Nektar execs, have you found your quiet place, yet?

It's been a stressful few months for Nektar employees. The company's 13-year marriage with Pfizer soured last October when the pharma unexpectedly decided to stop selling its inhaled insulin Exubera. True, Pfizer did cough up a hefty divorce settlement--a $135 million forgive-me gift, plus a promise to help with insulin supply and on-going clinical trials. (For more on the future of inhaled insulin, see here.)

Yesterday came the news that Nektar is eliminating approximately 150 positions--110 existing jobs plus 40 unfilled openings--as it restructures the company to "transition form a drug delivery service provider to a therapuetics drug development organization." In addition, the company announced that Hoyoung Huh, the company's COO and head of its pegylation business unit, is leaving to become CEO of BiPar Sciences, an up-and-coming biotech developing oncology therapies.

We've said it before. (No doubt, we'll say it again.) It's a terrible time to be in drug delivery. Making money in this space has always been tough--it's not enough anymore to take an existing molecule and dress it up with a PEG molecule to extend its shelf-life or aerosolize it for delivery to the lungs. Payers and physicians want proof that a new formulation isn't just convenient, but that it's superior to existing available medicines. As David Steinberg, an analyst with Deutsche Bank, told START UP in December: "The old model of drug delivery is completely broken down. To be successful you have to think far more innovatively."

Thing is, it takes a lot of money--and risk--to engineer a delivery system robust enough to deliver a real therapeutic advantage. Look at the field's lone success story in recent years--XenoPort. The company's share price has increased more than six-fold since its 2005 IPO, thanks to the success of its gabapentin pro-drug, XP13512, for restless leg syndrome and neuropathic pain. Last February GlaxoSmithKline agreed to fork over $75 million in cash and another $500 million in development, regulatory, and sales milestones for the compound. (Just for the record, Xenoport raised approximately $270 million in equity capital and another $160 million from partners to get enough data to convince the pharma of XP13512's value.)

So, the big lesson from XenoPort's success? Delivery technology ain't enough. XenoPort was only able to sign this monster deal with GSK because XP13512 is a new chemical entity with hard-to-duplicate molecular advantages. (The nifty formulation technology is an added bonus to investors -- a key part of its discovery platform.)

Of course, there is a corollary to this lesson (This IS a Windhover publication.) To be successful in drug delivery today means spending research dollars on two fronts: not only do you have to spend money to engineer the delivery system, but you also have to spend money to discover and develop novel, first-in-class or best-in-class compounds. Which leads this IN VIVO blogger to wonder, why even bother with the delivery piece of the puzzle?

Seem's like Nektar's board and CEO, Howard Robin, have been asking the same question. As part of the company's restructuring, Robin noted in a press release that "We are transforming Nektar into a world-class drug development company."

My friends and colleagues know I'm a big believer in the "I think I can" strategy. But it's tough to see how Nektar's transformation will occur near term. True, the company's inhaled amikacin, which is being co-developed with Bayer AG, is expected to enter Phase III clinical trials later this year, and its two leading PEGylated small molecule programs, PEG-irinotecan and oral PEG-naloxol, just entered Phase II clinical trials. But will there be the leadership to push these two products through development now that Nektar's PEG champion and resident brainiac, Hoyoung Huh, is jumping ship to take the helm of BiPar Sciences?

Maybe "the decision to step down as COO was a difficult one," as Huh asserts in another press release issued today. After all, he hasn't severed ties with the company completely. He'll be serving on the company's Board of Directors until 2009 or until a replacement has been identified according to SEC documents. Or maybe, Huh, whose CV lists an MD, a PhD, and a stint as a McKinsey partner, saw the darkening skies and approaching stormy seas and left for the relatively calmer waters of private biotech.

February 27 should be an interesting day. That's when Nektar will release results for the fourth quarter and full year of 2007. Meantime, Nektar employees, remember: deep breath in; deep breath out.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Transguyjay through a creative commons license.

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