Google Pours “Incredible” Computing Power into Antibody Drug Discovery With Adimab

2/3/10Follow @xconomy

Google is the undisputed king of Internet search and advertising, but its second act as a company might be to invent a new computer model for efficiently discovering targeted antibody drugs.

“Google is committing incredible resources to it. Incredible resources,” says Tillman Gerngross, the founder and CEO of Lebanon, NH-based Adimab. “The infrastructure alone is in the millions of dollars of raw computational power.”

Gerngross won’t say exactly how much money and manpower Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is putting into his startup, so it would be easy to dismiss this as chest-thumping from an overzealous biotech entrepreneur who’s just trying to raise cash. But Gerngross isn’t in that tight spot. He’s the Dartmouth professor who founded GlycoFi to make faster, cheaper antibody drugs in yeast, and sold the company to Merck for $400 million in 2006. His new company, Lebanon, NH-based Adimab, has struck deals in the past year to produce antibody drug candidates for Merck, Roche, Pfizer, and one other unnamed pharmaceutical giant. Those partnerships have given Adimab enough cash to run for the next 10 years, Gerngross says.

Google first made its interest in Adimab clear back in October. That’s when its corporate venture arm led an undisclosed financing that included Polaris Venture Partners, SV Life Sciences, OrbiMed Advisors, and Borealis Ventures. I spoke with Gerngross at length about the strategy behind this investment a couple weeks ago at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. We met one day before Adimab held a board meeting not far from the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.

Tillman Gerngross

Tillman Gerngross

What interest does a computing giant like Google have in a little antibody company like Adimab? First, a little background. Adimab is positioning itself as one of the emerging discovery engines for making targeted antibody drugs which can zero in on specific targets on diseased cells, while sparing healthy ones. The market, born in the late 1990s, now generates about $25 billion in annual sales for targeted drugs like Roche’s rituximab (Rituxan) and trastuzumab (Herceptin).

Traditional antibody discovery is time-consuming and risky. Adimab has developed its advantage with a fast yeast-based model that can be used to synthesize hundreds of antibodies against a certain target in just eight weeks of work, compared with six to 18 months of labor with the traditional methods used in biotech labs around the world, Gerngross says. Once that work is done, the major drug companies still need to spend years of labor and hundreds of millions of dollars testing those drugs in animals and humans, determining which of these hundreds of candidates bind the best with the target and have the strongest effect against disease.

While Adimab represents a huge potential gain in efficiency with its faster, cheaper platform for discovering antibody drugs on the front end, Gerngross and Google are thinking about the next big revolutionary change at the early phase of the antibody discovery process.

That’s where computers enter the picture. Biologists currently have … Next Page »

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