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Abide Therapeutics and Merck Unveil Diabetes Drug Collaboration

Xconomy San Diego — 

Abide Therapeutics, a two-year-old San Diego biopharmaceutical firm pioneering new ways to identify and validate drug targets among the serine hydrolase “superfamily” of enzymes, says today it has agreed to work with Merck (NYSE: MRK) on a drug development program for metabolic diseases.

The collaboration agreement, which could be worth as much as $430 million for Abide, is intended to discover, develop, and commercialize three new small-molecule drugs for type 2 diabetes. Further details concerning the financial terms were not disclosed, but Abide co-founder and CEO Alan Ezekowitz told me by phone the Merck deal represents “great validation of our technology and our platform.”

The collaboration should enable Abide, which has 10 employees at its La Jolla headquarters and another 10 under contract in Beijing, to add 10 more employees in San Diego by the end of next year, Ezekowitz said. Cardinal Partners of Princeton, NJ, has provided all of the capital Abide has raised so far, Ezekowitz said. The startup raised $2.25 million when it was founded, according to a regulatory filing.

Alan Ezekowitz

Abide has established R&D collaborations with a number of pharmaceutical companies since the company was founded in 2011, and there was considerable interest by several pharmas in Abide’s platform technology for new drug discovery, Ezekowitz said. The company chose Merck, “because of their deep subject-matter expertise” in metabolic diseases.

Serine hydrolases play a key role in a host of physiological processes that include nervous system signaling (and chronic pain), blood clotting, digestion, metabolism, inflammation, autoimmune disorders, and the life cycles of pathogens. There are scores of these enzymes, and many regulatory functions have been validated. But Abide says the therapeutic potential of modulating or inhibiting the activity of serine hydrolases remains largely undeveloped.

Abide says its proprietary technology can identify small molecules that block the activity of serine hydrolases. It is based on a 2010 breakthrough at the Scripps Research Institute by Abide co-founders Ben Cravatt, professor and chair of the department of chemical physiology, and Dale Boger, professor of chemistry. Their method first uses a probe to permanently label the active site of serine hydrolases in cell and tissue assays. Abide then screens libraries of compounds to find molecules that block the activity of the labeled site.

“We can interrogate these enzymes in their native configurations in all tissues,” Ezekowitz said. “I don’t believe anyone else has this capability.”

Under their collaboration agreement with Merck, Ezekowitz said Abide would focus its capabilities on the group of serine hydrolases involved in regulating metabolic diseases. “Merck has rights to three targets” for treating type 2 diabetes, Ezekowitz said. “They will get to choose from a number of opportunities.”

Merck will have worldwide commercialization rights to any drug compounds developed from the collaboration, while Abide is entitled to royalty payments on global sales from such future products.

The process of screening compounds for Merck “also provides an opportunity to get a lot more information about this enzyme class,” Ezekowitz said. “We may get information about a lot of other therapeutic areas besides enzyme metabolism.”

Abide’s lead internal program is focused on chronic neuropathic pain, and targets monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), which regulates levels of the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol in the brain, Ezekowitz said. The hope is that Abide could develop a compound with the pain-killing effects of cannabinoid compounds found in marijuana—without the psychotropic effects.

Ezekowitz said, “Our ultimate goal is to make transforming therapeutics that can really help people.”