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Millennium, In a New Role, Flexes Global Muscle to Cut Deal With Seattle Genetics

Xconomy Boston — 

Millennium is playing the role of global development and marketing partner to Seattle Genetics, something that would have been tricky for Cambridge, MA-based Millennium to nail before it became the cancer R&D arm of Japanese drug giant Takeda Pharmaceutical Company in May 2008.

Last month, Millennium closed a major collaboration deal with Seattle Genetics (NASDAQ:SGEN), buying exclusive rights to sell the Bothell, WA-based biotech firm’s experimental drug for Hodgkin’s and other lymphomas in all markets outside the U.S. and Canada. (Luke covered this deal in Seattle last month.) The deal shows how Millennium, with the financial backing and global reach of its parent Takeda, has risen in the ranks of potential collaborators in the biopharmaceutical game.

Takeda is looking to Millennium to lead the expansion of its oncology business, which already features Millennium’s big-selling multiple myeloma drug bortezomib (Velcade). In addition to the Seattle Genetics deal, Millennium executives played a key role last spring in doing due diligence for and negotiating Takeda’s buyout of Irvine, CA-based IDM Pharma, says Dan Curran, vice president of corporate development at Millennium. This week, Takeda is beginning European sales of mifamurtide (Mepact), a bone cancer therapy developed by IDM, he noted.

In Seattle Genetics, Millennium has found a partner with which it has a long history and deep understanding of its technology. Millennium initially began a research collaboration with the Washington biotech in 2003 to evaluate its “empowered” antibody drugs, according to Curran. That relationship was elevated last March, when Millennium paid Seattle Genetics $4 million up front to license the empowered antibody technology for cancer drug development. As the name suggests, the drugs are souped-up antibodies. The firm’s technology links antibodies, which are ideal for homing in on proteins on the surface of cancer cells, to toxins that are intended to destroy cancer cells.

Millennium knows what it is like to be in Seattle Genetics’s shoes, trying to bring its first drug to market and relying on a larger corporate partner in order to tap foreign markets. In fact, Millennium partnered with a unit of the healthcare products giant Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) in 2003 to market bortezomib outside of the U.S. Now, after the $8.8 billion deal that made the company part of Takeda in 2008, Millennium has the ability to serve as the conduit to the global stage for other emerging biotech companies.

“If we think about the kinds of products we invest in for the future, we are looking for products that really make a difference in the lives of cancer patients,” says Anna Protopapas, senior vice president of corporate development at Millennium. “Of course we have our own internal pipeline, but a part of the strategy is to look outside for innovation, and look for exciting products that meet our goals of what we want to achieve and bring those in as well.”

Indeed, Seattle Genetics’s brentuximab vedotin, the empowered antibody at the center of the firm’s latest deal with Millennium, has the potential to make an impact on the lives of patients with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a disease in which certain immune cells proliferate out of control. The drug is initially being developed to treat patients whose lymphomas have relapsed after getting standard treatments such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Initial treatments don’t work for about 20 percent to 25 percent of the estimated 10,000 Americans and 10,000 Europeans who are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma every year, according to Curran.

Brentuximab vedotin, which is in the midst of a pivotal clinical trial, showed in an earlier study reported in June 2008 that it could eliminate tumors or significantly reduce them in more than one-third of Hodgkin patients in whom previous therapies failed to deliver results—even though the trial enrolled some patients at less-than-ideal doses. Seattle Genetics hopes to seek regulatory approvals in 2011 to start selling the drug in the U.S. and Europe for patients with relapsed forms of Hodgkin’s.

Millennium, which has the marketing rights to the drug in Europe and the rest of the world,is hoping that the treatment will eventually be approved for use earlier in the treatment of patients with Hodgkin lymphoma, Curran says. (Many cancer drugs, including Millennium’s Velcade, are initially approved as second or third treatment options before getting the green light from regulators to be marketed as an earlier line of defense against cancer.)

But Millennium is also thinking more broadly about opportunities beyond Hodgkin’s. Curran said that the antigen or protein that the drug is being developed to target on cancer cells, called CD30, is present on cells of other tumor types. In fact, Seattle Genetics is already developing the drug for other types of lymphomas. The antigen is also present on certain T-cells—which are key to immune functions in the body—leading some to believe that the drug could be useful in treating diseases in which the immune system goes awry and attacks healthy tissues, like multiple sclerosis. Millennium’s recent deal with Seattle Genetics covers uses of the drug for lymphomas as well as for other diseases such as autoimmune disorders, Curran says.

“We’re working broadly on the development plan with Seattle Genetics to maximize the opportunity in other tumor types as well as in [diseases] outside of oncology,” Curran said. Yet the drug will need to be tested in other diseases such as MS to find out whether it could useful as a treatment outside of oncology.