Alkermes Bets $10M on Long-Lasting Drug Technology from Startup Neighbor, Acceleron

Xconomy Boston — 

Cambridge, MA-based Alkermes said today it is betting $10 million on a crosstown startup that it hopes has found a way to make the world’s best-selling rheumatoid arthritis drug more convenient for patients.

Alkermes (NASDAQ: ALKS) has agreed to pay $2 million upfront for a license from Cambridge, MA-based Acceleron Pharma, make an $8 million equity investment in the company, and offer future milestone payments and royalties on product sales. In return, Alkermes gets worldwide rights to Acceleron’s Medifusion technology, which seeks to make biotech drugs last longer in the blood. The technology will be put to the test in its clinical trials in late 2010 that will see whether Alkermes can make a less frequently injected version of Amgen’s etanercept (Enbrel), the rheumatoid arthritis drug that generated nearly $6 billion in worldwide sales last year.

Making big-selling drug last longer is a big part of the playbook at Alkermes, which gets revenue now from Johnson & Johnson’s risperidone (Risperdal Consta) for schizophrenia, and hopes to soon start collecting lucrative royalties on a once-weekly injectable form of exenatide for diabetes from Eli Lilly and Amylin Pharmaceuticals. Alkermes CEO Richard Pops saw another opportunity to improve upon Amgen’s blockbuster arthritis drug, with technology at Acceleron, where he serves on the board. The rheumatoid arthritis drug has been around since 1998, has a well-established safety and effectiveness record, but it must be taken via an injection under the skin once or twice a week. Alkermes’ idea is to make a protein drug that works the same way, but lasts “weeks or months” in the bloodstream, says spokeswoman Rebecca Peterson.

“This is really a technology that has lots of opportunities,” she adds. “Acceleron is a hot little company.”

While the longer-lasting arthritis drug (ALKS 6931) is a priority, the agreement is broader than just that. Acceleron will develop two other drug candidates through animal testing, and then hand them off to Alkermes for clinical trials and commercialization. Acceleron CEO John Knopf noted in a statement that Alkermes is an “ideal collaborator” because of its experience with making existing drugs last longer.

Of course, that means a lot of work lies ahead. The Amgen drug works by soaking up excess inflammatory proteins of the immune system that go haywire and attack healthy tissue instead of foreign invaders. But any drug that disables part of the immune defense can also make patients vulnerable to infection over time, and etanercept carries those warnings on its prescribing information. Any new drug that does the same thing, over a longer time frame, will have the same issue to deal with.