Amgen’s R&D Chief, Roger Perlmutter, on Why BioVex’s Cancer-Fighting Virus Is Worth $1B

1/26/11Follow @xconomy

Roger Perlmutter, the guy who runs R&D at the largest biotech company in the world, is an immunologist by training. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that he’s fascinated by recent advances in which scientists have shown they can harness the immune system to fight tumors. Now he’s acting on that emerging knowledge of cancer immunology in a big way, through Amgen’s potential $1 billion acquisition of Woburn, MA-based BioVex.

Thousand Oaks, CA-based Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN), which has significant R&D centers in South San Francisco, Seattle, and Cambridge, MA, made headlines yesterday with its big bet on a novel cancer treatment in development at BioVex. Perlmutter, the executive vice president of R&D at Amgen, has his fingerprints all over this deal, since he’s been working to transform Amgen into a more aggressive developer of anti-tumor drugs over the past decade. I’ve known Perlmutter for almost the entire time he’s been at Amgen, so I was eager to hear his thoughts the day after the big BioVex deal was struck.

Scientists have been dreaming for decades about alternatives to traditional chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery—particularly those that can harness the body’s immune system to fight tumors as if they were a foreign invader like a virus. Most of these efforts went down in flames, until Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) won FDA approval last year for the first treatment of this kind—which analysts say now has multi-billion dollar annual sales potential. One variation on this theme is through what BioVex and others have done, utilizing what are known as oncolytic viruses. These viruses are designed to specifically replicate inside tumors, causing them to burst, while also sending signals that alert the immune system to seek and destroy any residual cancer cells that might have been able to evade the virus.

Roger Perlmutter

Neither BioVex, nor anybody else, has proven that it can fight tumors well enough to win FDA approval, but Amgen’s bet is that BioVex will validate the oncolytic virus approach much like Dendreon proved cancer immunotherapy a year ago.

“I’ve looked at this field for a long time and found it to be rather discouraging,” Perlmutter said of oncolytic viruses. But over the last couple of years, after seeing what BioVex has done in clinical trials, Perlmutter says he was impressed by not just the company’s engineered virus, but the immune system effect it was able to trigger. “It seemed to me it was more and more likely they were seeing an effective immune response. It looked more and more promising.”

BioVex has been pursuing this challenge for a long time, having been founded in 1999 by Robert Coffin, a virologist from University College London. A dozen years later, Amgen snapped it up as BioVex was pushing its lead program, OncoVex GM-CSF, through the third and final stage of clinical trials normally required for FDA approval. The company is enrolling patients with both melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, and head and neck cancer.

The science is really interesting here, and Perlmutter was clearly happy to talk about what interested him (maybe he was bored with poring over spreadsheets on yesterday’s earnings call?).

Here’s the basic idea. The BioVex team has … Next Page »

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  • Saumitra

    Thank you Luke, It would be interesting to see if Amgen would stick with Melanoma or Head and Neck Cancer for it’s first approval.

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