One year ago, Zymeworks was a little company that hardly anybody in the U.S. biotech or pharmaceutical industry had ever heard of. Then it formed a collaboration worth as much as $187 million with Merck (NYSE: MRK). Suddenly, it seemed to Zymeworks CEO Ali Tehrani like everybody in the pharma industry wanted to hear about what his company was doing.
“Last year was a ‘hello, world’ moment for us,” Tehrani says. “This year, watch out for us.”
Zymeworksdoes indeed have something to talk about to keep the story moving forward. The company is announcing today that it has achieved one of the technical milestones spelled out in its partnership with Merck, which triggers an undisclosed cash payment that Tehrani says is “meaningful” to the small company. Besides that milestone, the 40-employee operation is announcing it has raised another $11 million from Advanced Biotechnologies Venture Fund, a group of angel investors from the U.S., Europe, and Canada. The company has now raised a total of about $30 million since its founding in 2003.
The big idea Zymeworks is pursuing is the development of “bispecific” antibody drugs that can be designed to hit more than one molecular target on diseased cells. The first generation of targeted antibody drugs—products like Genentech’s trastuzumab (Herceptin) and Abbott Laboratories’ adalimumab (Humira)—have been genetically engineered as Y-shaped proteins that are made to zero in on one specific target on diseased cells while largely sparing healthy cells. But as researchers have learned more about the biology in recent years, there has been increasing awareness of the potential of bispecific drugs that can specifically bind with two or more molecular targets.
Zymeworks certainly isn’t the only company working on new and improved antibody drugs. Tehrani likes to give a slide presentation that lists 39 different competitors, including big guys like Amgen, Genentech and Pfizer, and smaller companies like Genmab, and Xencor. When looking at that landscape, Zymeworks is aspiring to stake out a position as the one with the best technology for making a wide variety of protein drugs, including bispecifics, that cost about the same to manufacture as conventional antibodies, can be scaled up to commercial volumes, have similar properties for absorption and distribution through the body, and don’t trigger a negative immune system reaction against the drugs.
The company isn’t saying specifically what technical milestone it reached through its Merck deal, but Tehrani did describe Zymeworks’ progress in general. The company has done experiments that suggest it can do all the things listed above, and that work has been validated as well by Merck scientists. Neither Merck nor Zymeworks will disclose what molecular targets it is making drugs against, what diseases they have in mind, or how far along the work has advanced in R&D. But Tehrani did note that while a lot of research collaborations between large and small companies fizzle out in their first year, Zymeworks is happy to say its partnership is alive and advancing ahead.
“Merck has been a phenomenal partner, they have been extremely fair, extremely dedicated and diligent in doing what they promised they were going to do,” Tehrani says.
Important as the Merck deal has been for Zymeworks, Tehrani stresses … Next Page »
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