Eisai, with Oncology Group H3 Biomedicine, Doubles Down on Boston

2/14/11

H3 Biomedicine is one of the latest experiments that hopes to revamp the way biotech drugs get developed, to save both time and money. Japanese drugmaker Eisai, which is bankrolling Cambridge, MA-based H3, is betting that a combination of $200 million in cash, access to scientific luminaries, and the support of Eisai’s global research and development organization will make H3 a productive source of new cancer drugs. It might also be an encore to one of Eisai’s recent cancer drug successes based on a discovery from a Boston-area lab.

Eisai isn’t the first large drug company to try to light a spark for new drug discovery by essentially creating an entrepreneurial startup. London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline has taken a similar approach with its Cambridge, MA-based subsidiary Tempero Pharmaceuticals, which has plucked founding scientists and technology from Harvard to develop new drugs for autoimmune diseases. And, more generally, Novartis, Pfizer, and Sanofi-Aventis have all been growing their research presences in the biotech-rich Boston area.

At least for Eisai, it is likely to be many years before it gets the results of its H3 experiment. Last month, Eisai revealed its pledge to provide $200 million in funding to H3 over the next 10 years, with plans to begin operations of the group this year. The company is now in the process of hiring scientists and staff for the H3 lab in Kendall Square. The idea is to create an atmosphere of entrepreneurial science, something that supposedly lean and mean biotech firms are known to foster. That culture is something we know Big Pharma companies have struggled to incorporate into their own R&D operations, which have failed over the years to generate enough new products to replace the older ones that are falling prey to generic competition.

Spiros Jamas, the president and CEO of Glaxo’s Tempero Pharmaceuticals, notes that there are some definite perks to operating as a biotech with the backing of a large drug company.

“There are numerous potential advantages to this business model,” Jamas says in an e-mail, “including creating a truly entrepreneurial culture [and] enrolling… [academic experts] as founders. He adds that such biotech groups benefit from “access to big pharma’s significant drug discovery resources,” while enjoying “autonomous and agile decision making.”

Of course, there are also skeptics. The numbers show that biotech companies haven’t … Next Page »

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