A Sweet Deal: How Amira Reinvented Itself as a Drug Discovery Engine

12/23/11Follow @bvbigelow

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anti-inflammatory compounds with the potential to become new drugs.

The first was a series of small molecule drugs that blocked a signaling pathway called DP2/CRTH2, which increases allergic inflammation when activated. The compounds showed promise as a new treatment for respiratory diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other allergic conditions.

Another group became known as the FLAP compounds because they inhibited 5-Lipoxygenase Activating Protein¬ (FLAP), a signaling process that helps control inflammation. In early 2008, Amira formed a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline (worth as much as $425 million) to develop and commercialize FLAP compounds for treating respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

To Ozawa, the R&D team’s most impressive success came after scientists at Harvard Medical School published a seminal paper in early 2008 that linked LPA-1, a biological signaling process, to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a rare disease that forms scar-like tissue in the lungs and drastically reduces the ability to breathe. In less than a year, Amira had done preclinical proof-of-concept studies for at least two molecules that blocked receptors in the LPA-1 pathway. By early 2011, Amira had completed early safety and tolerability studies of its lead drug candidate.

“They were extremely effective and fast in taking it to Phase 1,” Ozawa says, “and the results were encouraging enough to entice Bristol-Myers Squibb to acquire the company.”

In the meantime, the company had been wrestling with a dilemma. As Prasit’s team came forward with each new potential drug compound, Kumar says, “We went to the board and said if we do another Big Pharma partnership, we’ll always be caught in this vicious cycle of invent-partner, invent-partner.”

This was the issue that set Amira and its board on the road to a more comprehensive approach. “A theme of discussion that began in the second quarter of 2010 was, ‘What is Amira going to look like five years from now?’” Kumar says. “It became very clear to us that the idea of a pure research and discovery group does not have much of a chance to survive in the real world. We had to find a return for investors.”

The situation “made Peppi think about what would happen to the research group,” Kumar says. “So Peppi said, ‘Let me think about this.’”

In terms of selling Amira, Kumar says, the good news was that Bristol-Myer Squibb wasn’t the only prospective buyer at the table, which gave Amira some negotiating leverage. Even better, Bristol-Myer Squibb was interested only in Amira and its LPA-1 program.

So, as the buyout talks progressed, Amira formed Panmira Pharmaceuticals as a way to continue the development of its two drug candidates from Amira’s DP2/CRTH2 program, as well as a FLAP compound for topical treatment of the eye and a preclinical program known as 5-lipoxygenase (5-LO). Most of the work under the original FLAP agreement was being done at GSK, so Amira formed a separate new company to simply manage that relationship.

To some outsiders, the departure of Prasit, Evans, and Hutchinson from Amira in November, 2010, was something of a shock. But that also was part of the plan, as the group set out to form Inception Sciences. The Bristol-Myers Squibb deal did not affect the formation of Inception, which Kumar describes as “a very proactive decision.”

As for Panmira, Kumar says Amira’s venture investors hold essentially the same proportional shares in Panmira. It hasn’t been necessary to raise any new money, he adds, as funding from the FLAP deal with GSK continues to fuel Panmira’s operations.

Today, Ozawa says Inception Sciences has about 25 employees and operates like a kind of internal contract research organization for two programs that have been seeded by Versant. Inception 1 is focused on drug discovery for neurodegenerative diseases and Inception 2 is hunting for metabolically targeted drugs designed to cut off a tumor’s fuel supply.

Inception 3 will likely be launched in 2012. So far, Ozawa does not see funding as a problem. “I do think one of the advantages for Inception is the track record of creating very important drug compounds in a time frame that is very important to the industry,” she says.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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