Codon Devices to Engineer Protein Drug for Merrimack Pharmaceuticals

Two local biotech companies have joined forces to develop a new protein drug. The agreement, between Codon Devices and Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, both of Cambridge, MA, was made public today.

Merrimack focuses on cancer and autoimmune disease. It has one drug already in clinical trials for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and the eye disease uveitis. Under the new agreement, the companies will collaborate on one of Merrimack’s other projects.

Up to now, Codon’s business has mainly been in synthesizing a broad variety of custom-made gene sequences and genetically engineered cells for its customers. The deal with Merrimack is the company’s “first move into value-added human drug product development,” according to a press release.

“We will use our knowledge in protein engineering and work with Merrimack on optimizing a protein therapeutic that is now in pre-clinical development,” said Codon CEO Brian Barnes in an interview.

Many of the protein drugs currently in development are based on monoclonal antibodies. Drug companies introduce random changes in the antibodies to generate vast “libraries” of variants, then screen the libraries to find the right ones for a given drug target.

Codon has chosen another strategy, identifying regions of the protein drug candidate that might be important to how it functions in the body and then making targeted changes to those regions by systematically modifying the gene that codes for the protein. “Codon has one of the world’s largest gene-synthesizing factories and we will be making a set of directed modifications,” says Barnes. But even though the changes are systematic the company will still have a dazzling number of genes and proteins to synthesize and screen. “In the course of this project it might be from one billion to ten billion varieties,” says Barnes.

Finding the best protein variety among ten billion makes looking for the needle in a haystack seem relatively simple. And the screening systems commonly used for antibody therapeutics cannot be used in this case, since the protein in question is much larger than an antibody

“We have developed a new system, based on yeast, that allows us to test a hundred million proteins at the same time and screen them at a rate of a million a minute. So theoretically, to screen a billion proteins is just a matter of a thousand minutes,” says Barnes.

Several other companies are active in the same field, trying to enhance the pharmaceutical value of proteins by creating a large number of varieties and then screening for the best. One example is Maxygen of Redwood City, CA, which has a proprietary “molecular breeding” technology.

Merrimack and Codon have not made public what therapeutic area the project is aimed at, nor the expected time-frame for the collaboration. Under the agreement, Codon will receive clinical milestone payments and also royalties on sales, if the collaboration results in a new drug on the market. The expected value of these payments has not been disclosed.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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One response to “Codon Devices to Engineer Protein Drug for Merrimack Pharmaceuticals”

  1. Would this give any hope for people who have anitiphospholipid syndrome?