Zymeworks Nabs $15M, Adds Lilly Partnership, in Antibody Drug Quest
Ali Tehrani wants to prove that he didn’t just get lucky three years ago when his company, Vancouver, BC-based Zymeworks, struck a partnership with Merck. So today Zymeworks is announcing it has found one more Big Pharma partner, raised another $15 million, and has continued to work with Merck even through its recent R&D shake-up.
“Merck was not a one-off deal, or a fluke,” Tehrani says.
Zymeworks is announcing today it has struck a partnership with Eli Lilly’s ImClone Systems subsidiary, the New York operation focused on making antibody drugs for cancer. Lilly is getting exclusive worldwide commercial rights to use the Zymeworks technology to make bi-specific antibodies, which are designed to hit two molecular targets instead of just one. against an undisclosed number of biological targets. Terms of the deal aren’t being disclosed, but Zymeworks will get an upfront fee, research support, and is eligible for milestone and royalty payments in the future if any of the Lilly drug candidates reach certain goals.
Separately, Zymeworks said it has raised another $12 million in equity financing from angel investors, with a roughly equal split of new and existing investors, Tehrani says. Another $3 million from that syndicate is committed and expected to close shortly, he says. The company, founded in 2003, has raised just under $50 million total, he says. The new money will enable the company to grow from 40 to about 50 employees, to add expertise in preclinical development, and push its first cancer drug candidate toward clinical trials in late 2015, Tehrani says.
Zymeworks is pursuing is the development of “bispecific” antibody drugs that can be designed to hit more than one molecular target on diseased cells. The first generation of targeted antibody drugs—products like Genentech’s trastuzumab (Herceptin) and Abbott Laboratories’ adalimumab (Humira)—are Y-shaped proteins that zero in on one specific target on diseased cells while largely sparing healthy cells. But as researchers have learned more about the biology in recent years, there has been increasing awareness of the limitations of traditional antibodies against more complex diseases like cancer and autoimmunity, which are driven by more than one faulty gene, or haywire protein.
When I spoke to Tehrani a year and a half ago, he showed me a list of 39 companies he counted as active players in what you could call the “advanced antibody engineering” world. There have been a few advances in antibody engineering in recent years, notably with antibody drugs that are loaded with toxins to make them more potent. So far, no one has yet won FDA approval for a bispecific antibody against any disease, although Germany-based Fresenius Biotech and its Germany-based partner Trion Pharma have gotten clearance in the European Union to sell catumaxomab (Removab), a bispecific antibody for malignant ascites.
Tehrani is no shrinking violet when discussing how Zymeworks fits into the competitive landscape for bispecifics. “We’re showing we have one of the best platforms for making bispecifics, antibody drug conjugates, and bispecific conjugates,” he says. Rockville, MD-based Macrogenics (NASDAQ: MGNX), which went public last year, is one of the leaders that Zymeworks looks up to, Tehrani says.
Merck has made some well-documented strategic moves to change its R&D organization, shifting toward … Next Page »