Ironwood, One of the Big Boys Now, Strikes Deal With Tiny Protagonist Therapeutics

1/18/11Follow @xconomy

Ironwood Pharmaceuticals has shown it is one of those rare biotechs that can take a new drug all the way through clinical trials, and entice investors to buy into an IPO in an economic downturn. Now the Cambridge, MA-based company is flexing its new muscle to not just discover its own drugs, but also to obtain promising new drugs from smaller companies—just like how Big Pharma companies do it.

Ironwood (NASDAQ: IRWD) said today it has formed a new drug discovery collaboration with Redwood City, CA-based Protagonist Therapeutics. The deal calls for Protagonist to use its proprietary technology for designing peptide drugs against biological targets picked by Ironwood. Terms aren’t being disclosed, but Ironwood is agreeing to make an upfront payment, provide support for a handful of full-time researchers at Protagonist, and shell out for success-based development milestones and royalties on product sales.

Protagonist, which is backed by an unusual set of biotech investors from Australia along with Lilly Ventures, has raised about $18 million since it was founded in 2006, according to its website. The company was built to make small-molecule and peptide drugs, the company has said. Not many companies have created big franchises around peptide drugs (San Diego’s Amylin Pharmaceuticals is one exception), although these small proteins are right in the wheelhouse of Ironwood.

Ironwood’s claim to fame is that it found a way around one of the key delivery challenges with peptides—which typically need to be injected—when it developed a novel drug called linaclotide that can be taken as an oral pill. This peptide works its way through the gut to treat irritable bowel syndrome with constipation, as well as chronic constipation. Ironwood went public a year ago, and has sustained a market value of greater than $1.1 billion, because the drug has passed all four pivotal trials the company designed to lay the groundwork for FDA approval.

“We believe that Protagonist’s expertise in the field of peptide drug discovery and their proprietary DRP (disulfide rich peptide) platform complement our internal discovery and development capabilities very well,” said Mark Currie, Ironwood’s chief scientific officer, in a statement. Protagonist, which doesn’t list any other collaborators on its website, called the Ironwood deal a “validation” of its technology.

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