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Ambrx Strikes Deal With Wyeth (Soon-to-be Pfizer) to Make Antibody Drugs

Xconomy San Diego — 

Ambrx has ginned up yet another potentially lucrative Big Pharma deal. The San Diego-based biotech company has struck a worldwide partnership with Madison, NJ-based Wyeth to create new engineered antibody drugs against multiple diseases.

Financial terms aren’t being disclosed, but Ambrx says it is raking in an upfront payment, research funding, milestone payments based on progress developing drug candidates, as well as royalties on sales of work that translates into marketed products. This deal, combined with Ambrx’s partnerships with three other major drugmakers, means that Ambrx now has enough cash in the bank to operate “multiple years” without seeking additional financing, according to CEO Steve Kaldor.

“We have no lack of interest in the company,” says Kaldor, who adds that he had talks with five different prospective partners before settling on Wyeth in the latest alliance. “We’ve actually been turning down deals.”

The Ambrx story began back in 2003. That’s when Peter Schultz, director of the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (and the founder of eight biotech companies) had a new idea for creating new amino acid building blocks for a different class of biotech drugs. These drugs could potentially do whatever you wanted, like last longer in the body, or carry potent cell-killing agents. That work has enabled Ambrx to raise about $106 million in venture capital, build a scientific team of about 80 people, and score five different partnerships with three other major drugmakers to date—Merck, Eli Lilly, and Merck KGaA of Germany.

Ambrx’s two best-known drug candidates are designed to be longer-lasting versions of protein drugs that treat growth deficiencies and multiple sclerosis. But Wyeth, a major drug maker that’s in the process of being acquired by Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), was interested in something new that emerged at Ambrx in the past six months. The companies are going to work together on what Ambrx calls its EuCode platform, which it says can pump out precise, consistent antibody drugs that are attached to little toxins that give them a little extra kick that can be used to do a tough job, like, say, killing cancer cells.

Bothell, WA-based Seattle Genetics (NASDAQ: SGEN) and Waltham, MA-based ImmunoGen (NASDAQ: IMGN) are the leaders in this field of attaching antibodies to toxins, and both have produced some impressive clinical trial results with cancer drugs made this way in the past year. The Ambrx technology is different, and superior in the eyes of Kaldor, because its chemistry allows for precise, consistent production that can maintain the exact ratio a drugmaker wants between the antibody and the toxin.

Ambrx doesn’t have any proof that its drugs work any better in people. But the company has recently run experiments in animals that show its EuCode technology can be used to attach a potent toxin onto one of the world’s best-selling antibody drugs, cetuximab (Erbitux), made by Eli Lilly. The results were exciting in animals, Kaldor says, although they haven’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Lots of biotechs I’ve talked to recently have complained that senior management at Pfizer and Wyeth have been so preoccupied with merging their companies that it has essentially taken the two big pharmas off the list of prospective partners for a while. So I wondered why Ambrx was able to do this deal, and why it would even want to, given the uncertainty of forming a deal with a company slated to be absorbed into an even bigger behemoth run by different people.

Kaldor answered that question by pointing me to the part in the press release with the obligatory quote from Wyeth (which I usually would ignore). The guy being quoted is Mikael Dolsten. He’s the president of Wyeth Research, and Pfizer has said publicly that if its takeover closes, he will be the guy in charge of biotech drugs for Pfizer. So Dolsten should presumably be in a position to make things happen at Pfizer—Kaldor says he expects he’ll be a “good steward” for the Ambrx partnership as long as the Pfizer deal goes through.

More importantly, the addition of Pfizer as a future partner provides more financial stability. That will allow Ambrx to keep pursuing its strategy of divvying up its effort between partnerships that pay the bills and working to create its own proprietary drugs. By balancing those two primary goals, Kaldor says, “we think we can build a great company.”