Presage Looks to Help Millennium Pick Cancer Drug Winners Early

4/6/12Follow @xconomy

Seattle-based Presage Biosciences, a spinoff from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is looking to help cancer drugmakers separate the winning compounds from the losers early in development, and now it’s found a major partner to put this idea to the test.

Cambridge, MA-based Millennium, a unit of Takeda Pharmaceuticals, said today it has struck an agreement to gain access to Presage’s technology for analyzing how various combinations of cancer drugs work against human tumor samples. Financial terms aren’t being disclosed, but Presage will get upfront fees and research funding as well as development and regulatory milestone payments once Millennium selects successful drug combinations, the companies said in a statement.

Presage, founded with technology from the lab of Jim Olson at the Hutch, has raised $4 million in its Series A financing, and has formed collaborations with several Big Pharma companies that have tested its technology. Those partners are hoping to improve the odds of success in clinical trials, where only about one out of every 10 cancer drugs that enters clinical trials ever makes it through the hoops necessary to become an FDA-approved product. Millennium, the cancer drug development unit within Takeda, is best known for its blockbuster for multiple myeloma, bortezomib (Velcade), and it is now charged with building on that momentum to make Takeda a bigger player in cancer drug development.

Jim Olson, founder of Presage Biosciences

“It couldn’t be more exciting. We’ve talked to a lot of companies, and we look to those with a true innovative spirit,” says Presage founder Jim Olson. “It’s uncommon to find groups with the track record and a true innovative spirit, and Millennium is one of those companies.”

While companies have long used various mouse models and screening technologies to decide which compounds to move into clinical trials, Presage has an unusual approach in which it directly probes human tumor samples. The company’s device uses an array of needles that have holes along the sides that can deliver multiple different kinds of chemotherapy drugs—or combinations of experimental biotech treatments—to localized regions of the tumor. The drugs can seep out within a small radius of the needle, so researchers can see how different regions of the same tumor respond to different drugs in their native microenvironment.

One of the operative words in cancer research today is “combinations,” which Olson said people are buzzing about this week at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting in Chicago. Companies are becoming more interested in finding those instances in which a single drug doesn’t work on its own, but can show a potent effect when given synergistically with another compound that works in a different way.

“One of Millennium’s goals is to advance the treatment of cancer by developing novel therapeutic combinations,” said Joseph Bolen, Millennium’s chief scientific officer, said in a statement. “Presage’s technology platform allows us to obtain in-depth non-clinical in vivo data that is typically difficult to gather by conventional approaches. It is our hope that the Presage platform will help us to more rapidly and accurately prioritize our development of novel combinations.”

Presage is limited by its contracts in what it can say about its previous collaborations, but Olson did say partners have used its technology to make decisions on which drug candidates to move forward in development, and which ones to cancel—decisions that could have saved tens of millions of dollars in some cases.

Presage currently has 14 employees at its South Lake Union offices. The company isn’t saying which other drug companies have tested its technology, but Olson says the Millennium deal should lay the groundwork for a maximum of three such collaborations. He wouldn’t say if the Millennium deal enables Presage to reach cash-flow break even or profitability, but said it’s a “transformative” partnership that has given the company confidence to expand its office lease and prepare to hire more employees. The plan over the next several years is to grow to about 40 employees, Olson says.

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