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MSM Protein Technologies Scores Antibody-Drug Discovery Partnerships

MSM Protein Technologies, a spinoff of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is announcing today it has secured partnerships with Germany-based Merck KGaA, and Switzerland-based Debiopharm Group, a drug development firm. The team at Medford, MA-based MSM will work to create antibody drugs that zero in on complex targets on cells known as G-protein coupled receptors and other targets like them. Full financial terms of the deals aren’t being disclosed, but they are large enough to provide at least two years of operating cash to MSM, says chairman Davis Farmer.

“This is really a validation of our technology, and shows we are a pre-eminent player in a potentially large niche market,” Farmer says.

MSM draws its name from a class of important biological molecules called multi-spanning membrane proteins, which includes the G-protein coupled receptors that are the subject of the new partnerships. The startup has proprietary techniques which it says ought to help researchers better characterize such molecules. Every major pharmaceutical company has interest in these proteins, because they are the targets of big-selling allergy drugs like ranitidine (Zantac) and loratadine (Claritin), and many other drugs for different diseases, Farmer says.

The big problem is that these are hard targets to hit. They dip and weave in and out of cell membranes like pieces of spaghetti, Farmer says. Researchers might know the gene sequence that encodes the protein, but it’s hard to simulate how that recipe turns into a precise 3-D structure. And the structures researchers observe when they look at samples of the proteins in lab dishes may not be the same as the shapes the molecules really assume when they’re embedded on the surfaces of cells inside the body, he adds.

MSM’s technology comes from work by biochemist Tajib Mirzabekov at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Mirzabekov and colleagues have aimed to create modified cell lines that could make it easier to characterize the G-protein coupled receptors, so that researchers could gain a better idea on how to create drugs that will actually block their activity, Farmer says.

MSM hasn’t taken any venture capital to date, and has gotten by on $6 million to $8 million since its founding in 2005 from angels, friends and family, and research sponsorship from at least one pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, Farmer says. The company has been able to keep its spending rate low partly because it has research operations in Russia, where Mirzabekov obtained his doctorate, Farmer says. It has about 24 employees, he says.

I pressed Farmer for details on the Merck KGaA deal, but he wouldn’t say much, other than it calls for the usual upfront cash payment, milestones based on success in development, and royalties on sales if the collaboration ever generates a marketed product. He added that the discovery partnership will focus on a number of targets, and that MSM will be working in one of the therapeutic areas where Merck KGaA has expertise, namely inflammation or central nervous system disorders. The Debiopharm deal is important because MSM will retain marketing rights for itself in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries in Eastern Europe and Asia, Farmer says. That collaboration is focusing on an antibody drug for cancer, called Debio 0929.

We profiled one other intriguing company going after G-protein coupled receptors in Seattle last November, called GPC-Rx (which now appears to be re-named PharmSelix). Many companies are interested in the targets, although MSM says it’s different because of its focus on developing large antibody drugs against them, instead of small-molecule chemical compounds traditionally favored by Big Pharma companies, Farmer says. He says the company is confident it’s on the right track with its mode for discovering new drugs against these hard targets. “A lot of inspiration and perspiration has gone into this,” Farmer says.