Ensemble Discovery Nabs Second Partner, Pfizer, to Develop New Class of Therapies

Xconomy Boston — 

Ensemble Discovery has found a second Big Pharma partner to support its R&D engine. The Cambridge, MA-based biotech is announcing today it has secured a partnership with Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, to develop a new class of drugs that combine some of the more desirable traits of conventional small molecule drugs and bigger protein therapies.

Terms of this deal aren’t being released, but Ensemble CEO Mike Taylor tells me they are “similar” to the template his company established back in April when it formed an alliance with Bristol-Myers Squibb. That deal called for Bristol to pay $5 million upfront, another $7.5 million for research expenses over the next two years, and milestone payments worth as much as $29.5 million based on the success of each individual molecule in development. Pfizer, like Bristol, has also agreed to pay the salaries of a “substantial” number of Ensemble’s 30 or so employees, Taylor says.

Both of those Big Pharma giants are paying for the right to develop a new class of therapies that Ensemble likes to call “Ensemblins.” These are synthetic mid-sized molecules that can be made into convenient oral pills, like classic small-molecule chemical drugs. But Ensemble hopes to gain an advantage by engineering its treatments to have precise targeting capability that’s commonly found in large-molecule protein drugs like antibodies, which are injected. The company was founded in 2004 based on research by David Liu at Harvard University, and it has received $32 million in venture capital from Flagship Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, Harris & Harris Group, CMEA Ventures, and Boston University.

But venture capital doesn’t last forever, so winning support from Bristol and Pfizer over the past year certainly solidifies the financial future of a little company like Ensemble, with a promising technology that still hasn’t yet entered clinical trials. The Pfizer deal means that Ensemble now has enough cash to operate “well into 2011,” Taylor says.

Mike Taylor

Mike Taylor

“Even though money can be hard to come by, we wanted to be strategic and selective in picking our deals,” Taylor says. “We really sought out companies that were committed to working with us to develop this therapeutic space.”

Naturally, that begged the question of why Ensemble thinks Pfizer would be committed. Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) says it historically spends $7 billion a year on R&D, and maintains 250 partnerships across industry and academia. Plus, it did just complete a $68 billion acquisition of Wyeth in October, creating an even bigger pharmaceutical colossus.

Taylor says he’s not worried about Ensemble getting lost in the shuffle, partly because of personal relationships his company has with Pfizer. Taylor himself has longstanding ties inside the company, since he was a senior vice president of Pfizer’s global R&D division, responsible for the research portfolio, before he left to become Ensemble’s CEO in July 2007. Ensemble’s chief scientific officer, Nick Terrent, worked for Pfizer in the 1980s, and has his name on the patent for the hit Pfizer drug sildenafil (Viagra). Tony Wood, the global head of chemistry at Pfizer today, is a “champion” of the Ensemble approach within Pfizer, Taylor says.

“Despite the distractions they had to deal with, they maintained a diligent focus on getting this deal done,” Taylor says. “It reflects on the value they place on our platform.”

In a statement, Pfizer’s Wood added: “The Ensemble technology platform will give us access to an area of chemical space not currently well-represented in our file that holds the potential to be of utility in addressing novel target types.”

While Ensemble hopes to create a broad portfolio of new compounds for its partners, it is also spending some of its energy on developing a pipeline of its own internal products. The company has set its sights on an oral pill that blocks an inflammatory protein called TNF. Lots of companies have tried to do this, and none have succeeded, but the target itself has been a gold mine for Amgen, Johnson & Johnson, and Abbott Laboratories, who all hit TNF with injectable protein drugs that treat autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. Ensemble hasn’t picked a lead drug candidate for blocking TNF, although it hopes to do that in 2010, Taylor says.