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VLST Snags Partnership with Novo Nordisk to Develop New Drugs for Autoimmunity

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the three-year time frame is important. It means that after Novo gets to look at VLST’s drug candidates, it has three years to choose whether to harvest them for development—after that, the rights revert to VLST, which can then develop them on its own, or find a new partner, Simonetti says. The deal basically gives Novo the right of first refusal on drug candidates, he says.

So far, VLST has discovered 225 of what it calls “virulence factors,” the key proteins that can help viruses fend off immune reactions. About 20 of these form the basis of drug targets, which VLST will retain full ownership of without sharing with Novo, Simonetti says. Novo will get to look at the rest as potential targets, he says. VLST is still a long way from introducing drug candidates for clinical trials. Two drug candidates—genetically engineered antibodies—are in early-stages of animal testing, and are still being fiddled with for optimal characteristics, he said.

ZymoGenetics CEO Bruce Carter, the executive in Seattle with the most experience working with Novo Nordisk, might get a chuckle out of seeing news of this collaboration. Monday night, he ripped Novo at an event hosted by the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association. Carter said Novo, and other large pharmaceutical companies, are populated with too many experienced hands who are bound to pour cold water on promising new ideas. “Novo has to license in everything. They never discover anything, and they never will,” he said. (Simonetti, not surprisingly, pointed to the positive aspect of dealing with Novo, and how it has a lot of drug development horsepower back in Copenhagen.)

The deal certainly cements VLST as one of the early success stories to emerge from the Seattle-based Accelerator. VLST was born in that incubator in March 2004 from an idea by Craig Smith and Steven Wiley, a pair of scientists at Seattle-based Immunex, which was acquired by Amgen. Smith is credited with the co-discovery of etanercept (Enbrel) while at Immunex, and the drug has gone on to become the world’s biggest selling biotech treatment, with more than $5.2 billion in worldwide sales last year for Amgen and Wyeth combined. It is an engineered protein drug that soaks up excess inflammatory proteins in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and other autoimmune diseases.

A lot of these autoimmune diseases are poorly treated by modern pharmaceuticals, so there’s plenty of room for someone to come along with another blockbuster like Smith’s earlier creation. VLST is hoping for a repeat of history. “Craig likes to say that if you listen to the virus, it will tell you a lot,” Simonetti says.

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