Friday, January 16, 2009

DotW: J.P. Morgan Redux--UPDATED

It's common wisdom that the J.P. Morgan conference is the sole reason many in our industry get their flu shots. (We point you to the CDC website for other, far more important stats on why that annual vaccine is important.) Not too surprisingly, deal-making flurry continued apace, as companies small and large sought to garner valuable positive press to balance out the increasingly negative economic news.

Even as Cephalon, BMS, and Wyeth announced new deals (see below), another theme this week was shareholder activism.

On Jan. 14, Deerfield Capital continued to press its case that NitroMed investors stand to lose out if the troubled specialty pharma merges with privately-held aptamer-focused Archemix. In an effort to woo investors, the firm sweetened its black-knight offer from $0.65-a-share to $0.75-a-share in a deal roughly valued at $34 million. The New York-based private equity firm objected to the reverse merger in December because existing NitroMed stockholders would be apportioned only 30 percent of the new entity despite contributing between $35 million and $40 million to a company with no late-stage clinical programs.

Meanwhile, the tussle between Avigen and its largest stockholder, Biotechnology Value Fund, continues to play out on the public stage. On Jan. 15, BVF offered to buy all of Avigen's outstanding stock for $1-a-share, a 35% premium over the biotech's closing price on Jan. 8, the day before BVF announced a plan to replace Avigen’s board with four “stockholder-focused nominees.” BVF, which has nearly a 30% stake in Avigen, wants the biotech to accept a merger offer from MediciNova, while Avigen management has said it plans to seek a new direction in 2009 after its stock price crashed following the failure last year of its lead candidate in multiple sclerosis spasticity.

The economic crisis is sure to force a number of biotechs to make the hard decisions execs at NitroMed, Archemix, and Avigen now face. That realization was an obvious undercurrent in the meeting halls and evening soirees this week, with many adopting a mantle of "been here before" bravado tempered with gallows humor. Being able to actually walk through the lobby of the Westin St. Francis with arms akimbo on Tuesday afternoon only added to the feeling that this year our industry is in a very different place than it was just 12 months ago.

Suffering from post J.P. Morgan letdown? (It's a real syndrome, though unlikely to make it into the 2012 edition of the DSM-V. Please resist the temptation to utter the phrase "let me give you my card" to your spouse. He or she won't appreciate it.) Instead, we're here to continue to pound the industry drum with another packed edition of ...

Wyeth/Santaris: Established as one of Big Pharma’s strongest players in biologics, Wyeth has lagged behind its competitors in the RNAi space. A strategic alliance announced Jan. 12 with Denmark’s Santaris Pharma brings Wyeth the opportunity to develop and commercialize microRNA and mRNA therapies in up to 10 targets. And Wyeth gets the opportunity at what looks like an economical price - $7 million up-front plus a $10 million equity investment to access Santaris's technology platform. Wyeth will also fund the research collaboration for three years – annual amounts haven’t yet been set according to Santaris CEO Soren Tulstrop– and will pay milestones up to $83 million apiece for each target, plus worldwide royalties on any products that reach the market. While not talking specifically about this deal during his JPM presentation Jan. 14, Geno Germano, president of Wyeth's U.S. and Pharmaceutical Business Units, noted that more than 60% of the company’s 2008 revenues derived from “non-traditional pharma sources,” such as biologics and vaccines. Such revenue is expected to increase to 75% of the Big Pharma's business by 2012, he said. One critical product: Xyntha, a Factor VIII plasma product approved for hemophilia A in the U.S. last February. Combined with the pharma’s existing hemophilia drugs, ReFacto and BeneFIX, Germano said the three products represent Wyeth’s next blockbuster franchise--Joseph Haas.

Novartis/HHS: At JPM, Germano also talked up Wyeth’s success with Prevnar, a conjugated pneumococcal vaccine and the industry’s first blockbuster vaccine, which brought in about $2.7 billion last year. While Wyeth is looking to broaden its vaccine franchise with a planned purchase of Crucell, giving it entrĂ©e to hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid fever competition, it also has to keep an eye on Novartis, which flexed its muscles in the vaccine world this week. The Swiss pharma announced it had been awarded a $486 million grant from HHS to help fund a new pandemic flu vaccine manufacturing facility on Jan. 15. While acquisition of the Dutch Crucell, the sixth biggest vaccine company in the world, would make Wyeth more competitive in pursuing vaccine contracts with other countries, Novartis is already there and HHS’ help in funding the Holly Springs, N.C., facility should only add to its advantage. HHS will provide the money over eight years to support design, construction, validation and licensing of the facility, which will make cell-based vaccines. Under the agreement, Novartis will provide a pre-pandemic supply of vaccine and ensure capacity to manufacture 150 million doses within six months of the declaration of a wide-spread outbreak. HHS also gets the option to purchase additional flu vaccine over 17 years--Joseph Haas.

Cephalon/Ception: In what is emerging as an ever more common method of getting assets cheaper--if not on the cheap--Cephalon announced this week its $100 million down-payment for privately-held Ception, which was founded by a group of former GSK execs in 2004. The payment gives Cephalon the option to purchase all outstanding stock in Ception for $250 million should the start-up's Phase IIb/III anti-interleukin-5 antibody, reslizumab, make good in the clinic. Reslizumab is targeted as therapy for pediatric eosiniphilic esophagitis, a rare inflammatory disease that has seen a ten-fold increase in diagnoses over the past decade. The deal also gives Cephalon a potential biologics platform that it can bolt onto its existing infrastructure. This increased capability is one reason the down-payment for Ception is so generous. Large molecule platforms have been commanding far higher price tags, and with this deal, Cephalon has signaled its interest and capped the ultimate expense it might owe down the road. This is the second option-type arrangement Cephalon has entered into in recent months. Last November, Cephalon did its first option deal, paying UK biotech Immupharma $15 million for license rights to Lupuzor, a CD4 T-cell modulator in Phase IIb for lupus--Shirley Haley.

The Medicines Company/Targanta: Facing the strong possibility that its franchise antibiotic Angiomax will lose patent protection in 2010, The Medicines Company hewed to its strategy of acquiring late-stage assets – this time through the acquisition of Targanta Therapeutics for $42 million. It's the second major acquisition for MDCO in recent months. In December, the company announced a riskier move: the buy-out of Germany’s Curacyte Discovery, whose lead program is Phase I serine protease inhibitor CU-2010, a candidate to fill the antifibronolytic gap created when Bayer had to pull Trasylol from the market. For its $2-per-share offer, MDCO will get the IV antibiotic oritavancin, stalled in Phase III for complicated skin and skin structure infections after receiving a “complete response” letter from FDA requiring additional trials in early December. Cambridge, Mass.-based Targanta netted $53.5 million in an IPO in late 2007, and has more than $40 million in cash on its balance sheet. Still there's no denying the oritavancin delay--and the cost of an additional pivotal trial--was a significant blow for the biotech. Phase II trials reportedly cost Targanta $40,000 per patient, and a larger Phase III study to better demonstrate the drug’s efficacy in patients with MRSA would be even more costly. Noting the growing U.S. market for gram positive infection therapies, estimated at $1.1 billion in 2007, MDOC stepped in, offering shareholders potential regulatory and commercial milestones payments, which could reach roughly $4.55 per share, in addition to its up-front offer. Cowen and Company’s Ian Sanderson called MDCO's move “a savvy deal” in a Jan. 14 note. In addition to Targanta's cash, MDCO also picks up an experienced antibiotic development team.--Joseph Haas.

Bristol-Myers Squibb/ZymoGenetics: With disappointing sales from its surgical bleeding drug Recothrom (topical recombinant thrombin) - just $1.8 million during third-quarter 2008 – and November’s change at the top, as then-President Douglas Williams succeeded retiring CEO Bruce Carter, ZymoGenetics appears fortunate to have gotten $85 million up-front for its Phase Ib Peg-interferon lambda candidate in hepatitis C from Bristol. At the JPM conference, Bristol Chief Scientific Officer Elliott Sigal said the deal fits with that pharma's strategic focus on antivirals and offers the potential of adding a “special type of interferon” with improved tolerability and targeting to the current standard of care in HCV. Adding a little spice to the transaction, which Williams says should bring ZymoGenetics $200 million total this year, including a $20 million license fee, is that the two companies were engaged in a two-year patent-infringement lawsuit related to Bristol’s rheumatoid arthritis drug Orencia that only was resolved last October. Bristol paid ZymoGenetics $21 million to settle the dispute over two patents held by the latter firm. This latest tie-up greatly strengthens ZymoGenetics' cash position and continues Bristol’s “string of pearls” strategy as the pharma attempts to transform into a next-generation biopharma--Joseph Haas.

Novartis/Peptimmune: Novartis and privately-held Peptimmune agreed on a pair of technically separate deals Jan. 15, with the pharma optioning exclusive rights to PI-2301, a peptide copolymer in Phase Ib for multiple sclerosis, while the venture capital fund Novartis formed with MPM Capital made an undisclosed equity investment in Peptimmune. Back in 2007, the Novartis/MPM fund took a $10 million equity stake in Radius Health, while a separate deal optioned Radius’ Phase II osteoporosis drug, BA058, in what was the first sign of corporate venture's ability to do biz dev. Few terms of the Peptimmune deal have been disclosed, although the biotech says it could realize more than $500 million in development, regulatory and commercial milestones if Novartis options ‘2301. If Novartis does elect its option, it will take over global clinical development, manufacturing and marketing of the drug. Meanwhile, the in-house venture capital model looks to be thriving. Thanks to their big pocketed Pharma sugar daddies, these groups can afford to be a little more generous in the terms they set than traditional VC firms, many of whom are drip-feeding companies as they go out on the fund-raising circuit--Joseph Haas.

Medtronic/Ablation Frontiers: If you’re actually wondering whatever possessed Medtronic to pay $225 million for Ablation Frontiers we’d like to introduce the company’s CEO Keegan Harper, with an excerpt taken from our November profile on the atrial fibrillation company. "Today, more than ever, that is a formula for success in medtech because by shortening procedure times or simplifying a surgical procedure, you enable doctors to treat more patients and that is generally a winning combination." Bingo. Medtronic CEO Bill Hawkins said it himself during his company’s presentation at the J.P. Morgan conference this week: Ablation Frontiers' “very unique set of anatomically correct catheters” will “democratize the atrial fibrillation procedure” by shaving considerable time off of a procedure that takes six hours or more at other companies. The purchase, if approved, would complement Medtronic’s earlier acquisition of CryoCath Inc., giving Medtronic a broader offering of atrial fibrillation products in its battle with Boston Scientific Corp. and Johnson & Johnson Corp. for the hearts and minds of electrophysiologists everywhere. It’s this pursuit that’s turned atrial fibrillation—a one-time black hole for device investors—into one of the sector’s brightest lights--Tom Salemi.

Merrion/Novo Nordisk: Irish oral delivery specialist Merrion Pharmaceuticals has inked another deal with Danish diabetes powerhouse Novo Nordisk to work on an oral formulation of a Novo GLP-1 receptor agonist. A deal to develop oral insulin analogues was signed back in November 2008. The Friday Jan. 16 deal is worth up to $58 million in up-front and milestone payments associated with a theoretical first-product approval and sales hurdles, plus an undisclosed royalty. Novo will also buy 300k Merrion shares at €3 apiece. Though there’s not a lot of granularity in the deal terms it’s worth noting that they’re very similar to the November insulin deal. Also remarkably similar and to us, more amusing: Merrion CEO John Lynch’s photo accompanying the release. Today’s picture of Lynch involves a photographer apparently lying on the floor in order to take a photo of the CEO upwards through a pill-strewn glass table. November’s picture is the same, except the pills are strewn in a slightly different pattern, and Lynch is accompanied by Ireland’s Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Mary Coughlan. Now before you all write in to point out that Lynch is wearing the same suit/tie combo and therefore the photos were probably taken on the same day, answer us this: where’s Coughlan? Why is the photo on the second release dated today? Why the different pill formation? Are the photos Photoshopped? Are they a metaphor for the state of Irish biotechnology—nay, for biotechnology the world over? Or is the photo-through-the-glass-table all the rage now? We’re no conspiracy theorists, but something is afoot on the Emerald Isle (and/or rotten in Denmark, we’re not sure where the photos were taken …)--Chris Morrison.

Abbott Laboratories/AMO: The ophthalmic industry has traditionally been in its own club, with specialty device and pharmaceutical companies exclusively selling products marketed to ophthalmologists. So the announcement on Jan. 12 that diversified giant Abbott Laboratories would acquire Advanced Medical Optics for nearly $3 billion in cash was as astonishing as the hefty premium Abbott ponied up. According to the terms of the deal, Abbott will pay $22 per share or a 149% premium to the ophthalmology company’s Jan. 9 closing price of $8.85. Despite the hefty price tag, Abbott is getting a business that many predict will continue to grow by double digits because of aging demographics and improved markgins on products like intraocular lenses. The predicted increased incidence of cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, presbyopia, and glaucoma mean this market could expand from $700 million globally today to $1 billion by 2020. Currently AMO holds the number one spot in refractive surgery, through its LASIK franchise, which accounts for one third of AMO’s overall business. It’s also the second player in cataract surgery, a recession-proof sector that treats the leading cause of blindness in the growing elderly population, and the number three player in eye care with a number of popular consumer brands. Indeed, it is this troublesome environment that caused AMO’s valuation to be depressed enough to make it a prime takeout target. At the November 2008 meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology in Atlanta, the talk was all about the deteriorating state of the refractive surgery market as consumers pulled-back on discretionary spending, especially high cost, elective surgical procedures like LASIK. As the S&P 500 fell, so did laser vision correction procedures. With a high debt load in a hard-hit market, AMO’s stock price had fallen from $24 in June 2008 to $10 by the end of December. But with the backing of Abbott, AMO will have the financial resources it needs to make sure it’s in a good position when the financial storm abates--Mary Stuart.

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