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Adimab, of which he is CEO.)
Yet what is notable about GlycoFi is the leading role it’s now playing in Merck’s major initiative to develop follow-on biologics, which are treatments that consist of recombinant proteins or other biological materials. The GlycoFi technology is used to engineer pichia yeast strains that can yield proteins that have human rather than yeast carbohydrate structures, instead of using mammal cells to produce such proteins. These genetically engineered yeast cells are also designed to produce batches of proteins with lower variability in form than proteins made from mammalian cell lines. Buckland explains that the yeast cells grow much quicker than mammalian cells, which shortens development and manufacturing times, and could reduce the cost of making biologic drugs at Merck.
GlycoFi’s technology has already been used, Buckland says, to engineer yeast cell lines for the production of Merck’s first follow-on biologic, a new version of an anti-anemia protein called erythropoietin. This protein is used to make what is known generically as epoetin alfa, which biotech giant Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN) markets under the brand name Epogen. Thousand Oaks, CA-based Amgen raked in $2.5 billion on sales of Epogen last year. Merck plans to begin sales of its version of the drug in 2012, followed by five more follow-on biologics launches by 2017, according to the company.
GlycoFi is now part of a Merck BioVentures unit for which Merck has committed $1.5 billion to support the research and development of follow-on biologics until 2015. Buckland says much of that money will be spent on clinical trials, yet Merck plans to continue to invest in the GlycoFi operation.