Biogen Idec’s Dream: Antibodies That Kill Two Birds With One Stone

12/9/09Follow @xconomy

Some of the most successful biotech drugs ever created are designed to hit just one specific target on diseased cells, while sparing all sorts of markers found on healthy cells. But if Biogen Idec scientist Tony Manning and his colleagues are right, antibodies that specifically hit two targets could someday be better than one.

Cambridge, MA-based Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB) has long been a leader among companies that make monoclonal antibodies, which are made to specifically home in on a single specific target found on diseased cells. This is the mode of action behind one of Roche and Biogen’s classic hits, rituximab (Rituxan). Other biotech drugs, including products from Cambridge, MA-based Genzyme, are engineered proteins that replace something essential in the body. Still others like those from Amgen stimulate production of essential red and white blood cells.

But if your goal is to hit a specific target on diseased cells and you believe that say, certain autoimmune diseases and cancers are really complicated and involve cells with many different markers of disease, then wouldn’t it make sense to see if a drug can specifically block two targets? Essentially, as the old cliché goes, wouldn’t that be like killing two birds with one stone?

That’s how Manning sees it.

“These are next-generation biotherapeutics that could transform the business of biotech products,” says Manning, Biogen’s vice president of inflammation and autoimmune disease research.

Rituximab was approved by the FDA as the first monoclonal antibody for cancer back in 1997, and that opened the floodgates for an antibody boom. Biotech companies are estimated to rake in more than $30 billion in sales next year from these little Y-shaped proteins that treat all kinds of diseases like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.

Tony Manning

Tony Manning

Ever since genetically engineered antibodies were first synthesized in the 1970s, scientists have sought ways to make them better. Earlier this week, I described how Waltham, MA-based ImmunoGen (NASDAQ: IMGN) is working with Roche on what those companies hope will be the first commercially successful drug that attaches an antibody to an extra-potent toxin.

Taking a different approach, Manning spearheads a group at Biogen who dream of engineering a new class of antibodies that can hit two disease targets on cells, not just one. These are so-called “bispecific” antibodies. This is all at a very early stage of research, and none of these drug candidates have yet advanced into clinical trials, but to hear Manning talk, they will be a big deal someday not too far in the future.

The potential advantages of such a two-pronged antibody are pretty clear. Take rheumatoid arthritis, for example. Researchers know that drugs that block targets on cells called TNF and IL-6 can be effective at dampening the excess inflammation in the disease. It could be hypothesized that giving both types of drugs together might increase overall effectiveness, but that would also add a number of injections that patients might not want, and the two drugs could increase side effects … Next Page »

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