ImmunoGen CEO Highlights Two New Souped-Up Antibodies Against Cancer

2/25/11

ImmunoGen, in the eyes of Wall Street, is largely defined by one thing—its relationship with industry giant Genentech. That’s because Genentech uses ImmunoGen’s technology to help amp up the antibody trastuzumab (Herceptin) into a more potent breast cancer drug called T-DM1, which has shown significant promise in clinical trials.

Yet ImmunoGen chief executive Daniel Junius says there’s a lot more to the story. Today, his firm is hosting an analyst day in New York to emphasize some of the drugs that are wholly-owned by ImmunoGen—unlike T-DM1, in which Genentech will reap the lion’s share of the rewards. Junius gave me a preview yesterday of two so-called antibody-drug conjugates—which link targeted antibodies with toxins to make them more potent—that are 100-percent owned by ImmunoGen. Though these two molecules haven’t begun human testing, Junius made a good case for why they are important to his company and why they could prove valuable for the treatment of certain types of cancer.

Junius, who became CEO of ImmunoGen in 2009, wants his company to expand its own internal pipeline of compounds along with continuing its partnerships in which it shares rights to other products with drug giants such as Genentech (a unit of Swiss healthcare firm Roche) and Sanofi-Aventis. “We’re working very hard to be moving from a partner-based company—although that will still have a role—to being one that is much more focused on proprietary compounds,” he says.

This thinking makes sense given the impact of a recent regulatory setback for Genentech’s T-DM1 on ImmunoGen. The FDA handed Roche/Genentech a “refusal to file” letter in late August, essentially saying it wouldn’t accept the firm’s application for accelerated marketing approval of T-DM1 as a breast cancer treatment because of the agency’s opinion that the experimental treatment did not quality at this time for that faster-than-usual type of review. Some investors immediately fled from ImmunoGen’s stock, sending its shares down more than 35 percent on August 27, the day that Roche announced the “refuse to file” letter.

ImmunoGen’s stock has since recovered the value it lost on the day of the FDA letter, and Roche is still advancing T-DM1 through the third and final stage of clinical trials normally required for FDA approval. ImmunoGen also announced a partnership deal in October with Novartis that brought the firm $45 million in upfront cash and the opportunity for additional payments related to specific compounds within the collaboration. (ImmunoGen’s stock closed at $8.80 per share on Thursday, giving the company a market value of $598.7 million.)

The two compounds that the company plans to highlight today are called IMGN859 and IMGN529. Like T-DM1, these compounds combine the ability of antibodies to home in on tumor targets with the killer punch of an anti-cancer toxin. The firm uses linkers to keep the toxins bound to the antibody while it is in the bloodstream, limiting exposure to the anti-cancer agent on healthy tissues. ImmunoGen is reserving some of the details on its latest two compounds until a scientific meeting later this year.

Junius says that the compound called IMGN529 features an antibody with an affinity for an undisclosed target on non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, a cancer of the white blood cells. In fact, the firm’s antibody alone—without any extra kick from an attached toxin—compared favorably in models of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with available antibody drugs such as Biogen Idec (NASDAQ:BIIB) and Genentech’s lucrative … Next Page »

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