The Future of Biotech Is in Rabbits, Says Entrepreneur Johnny Stine
About 40 miles north of Seattle, on a rabbit farm, Johnny Stine thinks he has found a disruptive force for biotechnology. He’s building a startup, called North Coast Biologics, around the idea—without a penny from venture capitalists or more than a handful of employees.
Ridiculous, right? “I wouldn’t bet against him,” says Carl Weissman, the president of Accelerator, the Seattle biotech-startup incubator. Accelerator invested in Stine’s previous company, Spaltudaq, which has now raised $34 million in venture capital to develop antibody drugs.
To understand Stine’s new idea, a bit of background is necessary: Genetically engineered antibody drugs, which can zero in on diseased cells while sparing healthy ones, are the fastest-growing class of drugs in the pharmaceutical industry, expected to top $26 billion in global sales by 2010. South San Francisco-based Genentech (NYSE: DNA) has become the world’s most valuable biotech company on the strength of three such drugs for cancer: Avastin, Rituxan and Herceptin.
But those medicines all have origins in a technique discovered in 1975, using mouse cells. The immune system recognized them as foreign and rejected the drugs, so companies like Genentech used less mouse DNA, and incorporated more human DNA, into their antibodies.
There are problems, however, with using mice, Stine says. They don’t make antibodies against some proteins that humans consider foreign, while rabbits do, he says. Rabbit antibodies have 1,000 times higher “affinity” than mice (they bind with their target on cells much more tightly and for longer). For the biotech business, that means rabbit-generated antibodies can be given in fewer shots, and at much lower doses, saving a bundle on manufacturing costs.
And here’s the part that Stine says “blows people away.” With rabbits, he has developed a way to yield hundreds of antibody drug candidates in less than a month. By comparison, it can take several months for mouse methods to yield a single drug candidate, he says. He calls it BLAST (B-Lymphoblast Activation and Selection Technology).
Stine isn’t the only guy who thinks rabbits may be the antibody engine of the future. … Next Page »