Adimab Proves Fast Antibody Discovery Tool to Merck, Roche; Snags New Deal With Pfizer

Adimab has an audacious goal for speeding up the way antibody drugs are discovered, and apparently it’s delivering the goods. The Lebanon, NH-based biotech company is announcing today it has collected milestone payments from its first two corporate partners, Merck and Roche, and built on that experience to grab a pair of additional partnerships with Pfizer and one other unnamed drug company.

Financial terms aren’t being disclosed, but I gathered the basic structure in a conversation yesterday with Adimab CEO Tillman Gerngross. Both Pfizer and the unnamed company have agreed to pay fees to support research at Adimab, as well as upfront cash, milestone payments, and royalties on sales for each drug or diagnostic that may someday be developed using the Adimab technology. Pfizer is using the Adimab technology to discover antibodies for a central nervous system disorder, while the unnamed partner is aiming to make antibodies against cancer.

While Adimab isn’t providing specific numbers, Gerngross tells me that securing these deals means that his 45-person company now has enough cash in the bank to operate for the next 10 years. The company is so confident that it has created something valuable to the pharmaceutical industry, that Gerngross vowed his company will secure two more partnerships before the end of March, plus two more by the end of June. Part of what’s driving it is that the pharmaceutical industry sees rapid growth in the $25 billion annual market for antibody drugs like rituximab (Rituxan) and trastuzumab (Herceptin), which can zero in on specific targets on diseased cells, while sparing healthy ones.

But that’s not the main reason the big players are beating a path to Lebanon, NH. They’re coming to Adimab for a method that can pump out hundreds of antibodies against a certain target in just two months of work, compared with six to 18 months of labor with the traditional methods used in biotech labs around the world, Gerngross said. The rest of the work in testing those drugs in animals and humans will be up to the major drug companies.

“People do a lot of promising in this business, and not a lot of delivering,” Gerngross said via phone from Nairobi, Kenya, where he was on vacation. “We take this very seriously. When we say we’re going to do something, we do at least that and more. It’s kind of embarrassing, but in this industry, that makes us stand out. We are doing these deals because we delivered.”

Gerngross can say stuff like that because he’s a proven player in the antibody drug business, after having sold his first company, Lebanon, NH-based GlycoFi, to Merck for $400 million in 2006. A year later, he started Adimab.

The idea, as Ryan has written about for Xconomy before, is to use a synthetic immune system made up of fast-dividing yeast cells that are genetically engineered to produce some 10 billion different human antibodies. Those antibodies are attached to the surface of the cells that produce them. Next, Adimab can take any protein target it wants—like the famed CD20 protein on B-cells that rituximab binds with—that has been tagged with florescent dye. The antibodies that bind to those tagged target proteins are singled out as potential treatments for the cancer. The fast-dividing yeast cells that made those particular antibodies are then collected to make more of the antibodies for further testing. This eliminates a lot of steps, and is much faster than the traditional methods that require scientists to use multiple types of living cells (like mouse, E. coli bacteria, and Chinese hamster ovaries) to discover antibodies with the right properties to become a drug.

Adimab was founded in 2007, and has secured venture financing from the likes of Google Ventures, SV Life Sciences, Polaris Venture Partners, OrbiMed Advisors, and Borealis Ventures. It spent about two years developing its yeast-based system for antibody discovery, before rolling it out for commercial use in June, Gerngross says. Those first two deals with Merck and Roche were critical litmus tests, in which Adimab proved that it could deliver hundreds of antibodies against the desired targets, within the 8-week deadline. Hitting that goal triggered undisclosed milestone payments to Adimab, Gerngross says.

Gerngross sure sounded like he was in a fiery, competitive mood when we spoke yesterday. When I asked if anybody else has anything similar to the high-speed antibody drug discovery method, he noted that a number of companies are talking about the same thing, but his firm has delivered actual progress which he measures in the milestone payments from his customers—including Merck, Roche, and now Pfizer.

The pool of biotech companies with strong antibody discovery skills has narrowed since Bristol-Myers Squibb acquired Princeton, NJ-based Medarex, and Germany-based MorphoSys agreed to an exclusive partnership with Novartis, Gerngross says.

“There’s not a technology out there that’s as good or as efficient as ours,” Gerngross says. “So many people claim to have great stuff, but if it’s not translating into deals, I don’t believe it.” He added that he measures Adimab’s progress not just in deals closed, but in hitting the milestones laid out in the agreements.

I asked if Adimab foresees itself solely as a provider of antibodies to bigger partners, or whether it wants to retain 100 percent ownership for some antibodies in its own internal pipeline, like many other companies do. Not Adimab. The company will continue to perform its work for partners, because it doesn’t have drug development expertise, and it could dilute the company’s focus.

“This industry suffers from a lot of B.S.,” Gerngross says. “We believe in picking what we’ll be good at, and then being good at it.” When I asked at the end of the interview if he was really confident in stating publicly that he’s going to close on two more partnerships in the first quarter, and two more beyond that in the second quarter, he didn’t back away one inch from that bold prediction.

“I’m planting a stake in the ground,” he says.

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