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This type of testing for the dimer proteins on cells could also apply to other drugs that hit targets in the same genetic family, like Amgen’s panitumumab (Vectibix), and Genentech’s and OSI Pharmaceuticals’ erlotinib (Tarceva). It could also be of interest to Roche as it screens patients in clinical trials of new types of cancer drugs, Taylor says.
The research is clearly of interest to health insurers, who are looking for ways to get a better bang for every health insurance premium dollar they collect. Ensemble has had talks with some insurers, although before such companies put their money to work in supporting these tests, they want to see more data, Reid says.
Even with the extended collaboration with Roche, most of Ensemble’s staff of 35 employees will continue pushing ahead with the firm’s experimental drugs, Taylor says. One lead candidate that has stirred up interest from potential partners is a drug that blocks TNF, an inflammatory protein that’s a culprit in diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. Ensemble’s drug candidate is made into an oral pill, which could give it an advantage in convenience over top-selling injectable TNF blockers like Amgen’s etanercept (Enbrel) and Abbott Laboratories’ adalimumab (Humira). While that work continues, the Roche diagnostics deal will provide a little cash to support it, Taylor says. That’s never a bad thing, as many biotech companies are struggling to survive in today’s economic climate. “In this business, you’re always looking for more money,” Taylor says.