GlycoFi proves too sweet for Merck to resist

By Gregory Roumeliotis

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Hpv vaccine

Looking to make protein-based drugs faster and cheaper, Merck &
Co has acquired biotechnology company GlycoFi for approximately
$400m (€312m) in cash.

GlycoFi specialises in the field of yeast glycoengineering and optimization of biologic drug molecules, so America's second biggest drug manufacturer aims to use its technology platform to produce therapeutic proteins and vaccines cheaply and more effectively.

Glycoengineering provides the ability to make proteins such as monoclonal antibodies in yeast with pre-specified and defined human carbohydrate side chains, offering improved speed, cost and quality over conventional methods.

GlycoFi's yeast-based, proprietary protein optimisation technology complements Merck's own capabilities in yeast expression, put to the test in the production of the virus-like particles in Gardasil, its investigational HPV vaccine.

Thus, this newly acquired technology could significantly enhance the ability of Merck scientists to produce novel drugs in many therapeutic areas, such as oncology and novel vaccines - two of nine priority disease areas for Merck.

Cancer in particular is developing into a huge market, with pharmaceutical information specialist IMS Health estimating that there were a total of 96 cancer products in final Phase III clinical trials or awaiting approval at the end of 2005, nearly double the 51 being assessed for heart disease.

Asked about scaling up GlycoFi's technology in biomanufacturing, Merck spokeswoman Janet Skidmore told​ she cannot disclose details and would only say there is good synergy in the methodology of the two companies.

"GlycoFi, which was founded in 2000, has in just a few years earned a reputation for expertise in the field of glycoengineering and optimisation of biologic drug molecules by expression in yeast,"​ she said.

"Our acquisition of GlycoFi's scientific expertise, patent estate and robust technology platform is a significant step toward enabling Merck to discover, optimise and develop novel biologic drugs to serve the needs of patients worldwide."

What makes GlycoFi's method special is that therapeutic proteins are produced in Pichia (yeast) instead of in mammalian cells such as CHO or NS0 cell lines.

The Pichia have been engineered to produce a single glycoform, rather than the multiple glycoforms produced in mammalian culture.

A glycoform is a type of protein with a specific type of glycoprotein attached, so two proteins would be of the same glycoform if they carried the same glycoprotein.

Other benefits of this technology include the production of antibodies possessing high ADCC (antibody-directed cellular cytotoxicity) for oncology, increased speed in preclinical development, and the ability to produce proof-of-concept biomolecules quickly.

Nevertheless, Merck treaded carefully before clinching the deal, waiting to develop a relationship with GlycoFi after agreeing a research collaboration to develop novel biologic and vaccine candidates in 2005.

Last week Merck also agreed to acquire Abmaxis, another privately-held biotech, specialising in the discovery of antibody-based products to be used in drugs and diagnostics, for $80m.

The company is also in the middle of a massive restructuring spree, slashing jobs, closing manufacturing plants and a research facility to save $3.5bn to $4bn over five years.

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