Turnaround CEO Shores Up Strategy for Unigene Based on Big Pharma Partnerships

Xconomy New York — 

When Ashleigh Palmer joined Boonton, NJ-based biotech company Unigene Laboratories as CEO in mid-2010, he faced a turnaround challenge that others might have considered way too daunting. The 30-year-old company was struggling to make money from a disjointed set of assets, which included a promising but, in Palmer’s view, under-marketed technology that could be used to turn injectable peptides—or protein-based drugs—into easy-to-swallow pills. Unigene was in debt and in need of a rescue. Furthermore, says Palmer, it had been managed by the two scientist-founders, who were brothers. “There’s the first warning sign,” Palmer says. “Family and business often don’t go well together.”

Wall Street has yet to be convinced that Palmer has what it takes to turn around Unigene’s fortunes. Unigene (NASDAQ: UGNE), which went public in 1985, was delisted in 1999 and pretty much left for dead by investors. On November 9, Unigene announced a net loss of $7.2 million for the third quarter ended September 30, on $3.4 million in sales. The company’s revenues included royalties from a nasal spray it developed to treat the degenerative bone disease osteoporosis—a product that that Unigene licensed to Maple Grove, MN-based Upsher-Smith Laboratories but that hasn’t been selling well due to competition.

The stock, as usual, barely budged—edging down 2 percent to $1 after the earnings announcement.

Palmer has been doing his best to get investors to focus on the good news. In conjunction with its earnings announcement, Unigene announced positive Phase 2 trial results on an osteoporosis drug it is developing with European drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK). The drug is an oral form of parathyroid hormone (PTH), the protein that’s the basis of Eli Lilly’s blockbuster osteoporosis injection teriparatide (Forteo). In the trial, Unigene’s drug produced a statistically significant increase in bone mineral density in the lumbar spine—a measure used to predict fracture risk. It was the result the companies were hoping to see.

Wall Street’s reaction? Crickets.

Then, yesterday, the company announced that an osteoporosis drug it was manufacturing as part of a partnership with Novartis (NYSE: NVS), Danish drug developer Nordic Biosciences, and Cedar Knolls, NJ-based Emisphere performed poorly in a late-stage clinical trial. Unigene has already received $13.7 million out of $18.7 million in potential payments from Novartis under a 2004 licensing agreement, and Palmer said in a statement that the setback would make little difference to the company’s turnaround effort. Still, it was enough to knock Unigene’s stock down by a dime.

As far as Palmer is concerned, the company’s relationship with GSK is the key element of his turnaround plan. GSK first partnered with Unigene in 2002 with the intention of developing a synthetic, oral form of PTH. But the first generation product didn’t work, and GSK lost confidence in Unigene, Palmer says. So shortly after he joined the company, Palmer and his team went to GSK and presented new data on … Next Page »

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3 responses to “Turnaround CEO Shores Up Strategy for Unigene Based on Big Pharma Partnerships”

  1. Webster says:

    Get the Levy brothers out of the top management of Unigene, where it’s a money machine for them, and you might have a chance of turning this company around.