Ambrx Grabs $24M Upfront in New Diabetes, Heart Failure Research Deal With Bristol-Myers

Xconomy San Diego — 

There’s lots of interest in the protein drug engineering crowd to come up with new-and-improved forms of biotech drugs, and today we’re seeing another example in a new partnership between San Diego-based Ambrx, and New York-based Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY).

Under the deal, Ambrx said today it will get $24 million upfront, plus undisclosed milestone payments and royalties if any of its work materializes into marketed products. In return, Bristol-Myers is getting exclusive worldwide commercial rights to a couple of Ambrx’s research programs. One is the Fibroblast Growth Factor 21 (FGF-21) protein, which scientists think might be useful for treating type 2 diabetes, and the other is on the Relaxin hormone, which is being studied as a treatment for heart failure.

Ambrx has been around since 2003, working on some hard chemistry that seeks to make new amino acid building blocks to create new biotech drugs. These drugs are thought to have great versatility to swap in and out certain desirable properties, such as features that make them last longer in the body, or carry potent cell-killing agents. Ambrx has raised more than $100 million in venture capital in its history, and built a broad network of partners that includes Merck, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, and Merck KGaA of Germany.

Even while pharma research budgets have been tightening, there has been increasing interest in some of the new tools startups are developing for engineering protein drugs. South San Francisco-based CytomX Therapeutics, South San Francisco-based Sutro Biopharma, and Cambridge, MA-based Eleven Biotherapeutics are a few of the companies that have raised $30 million or more in venture capital in the past couple years, and Vancouver, BC-based Zymeworks struck a partnership earlier this month with Merck. And the seasoned hands of protein engineering at companies like Amgen, Roche’s Genentech unit, and Biogen Idec are working on all kinds of protein drug configurations, like those that can be engineered to hit two targets instead of just one. Seattle Genetics (NASDAQ: SGEN) recently won FDA approval for an engineered antibody linked to a toxin that makes it a far more potent drug for rare lymphomas, which has prompted multiple pharma companies to license the technology against other tumor types.

Ambrx has been pretty quiet on the news front for the past year, since CEO Steve Kaldor left. Ambrx still doesn’t list a new CEO on its website, although chief business officer Simon Allen was quoted on behalf of the company in today’s deal announcement.