Eisai buy cancer antibody specialists

By Mike Nagle

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Immune system

Japanese pharma firm Eisai has made a foray into biological drug
discovery by buying a US company who specialise in cancer
antibodies.

Eisai has agreed to pay $325m (€243m) for Morphotek and its antibody building technology, Morphodoma.

In addition, the Japanese company will also gain two drug candidates in clinical development and five more in preclinical testing.

The acquisition marks the Japanese company's first venture into protein-based therapies.

It is potentially a highly lucrative field with the global market for biopharmaceuticals estimated to be $50bn in 2005 and with growth rates almost double that of the pharmaceutical market in general. "

Morphotek's rich pipeline, unique and proprietary antibody generation technology platform, and highly skilled management and scientific team will become the core of our R&D efforts in biologics," said Haruo Naito, CEO of Eisai.

He continued: " By combining Morphotek's proprietary technologies and promising therapeutic antibodies with Eisai's existing research programs and infrastructure, we will be able to meet our goal of addressing the unmet medical needs of patients, especially cancer patients, all around the world."

Monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) got their name because they are produced from a single type of immune cell.

The antibodies bind to a specific known target and so can be used as a research tool to detect and purify that substance, for example in target validation.

They can also be used clinically to deliver drugs to specific disease-related targets such as cancer tumour cells.

MAbs are normally produced by inducing an immune response in animal cells, typically from a mouse.

First-generation MAbs were limited by side effects and a tendency to lose efficacy over time.

Since then, there has been a progressive effort by scientists to make the antibodies more human culminating in the generation of genetically engineered mice that produce fully-human antibodies.

Morphotek has developed a technique to produce antibodies from human immune cells.

Morphodoma creates antibodies that are superior, the company claim.

The antibodies are both safer - they are less likely to induce an immune response due to their native human structure - and also require less frequent dosing.

Morphotek also use this technology to generate libraries of antibodies to identify novel disease-associated targets.

The US company has been reassured that it will "enjoy its autonomy in Eisai's discovery network," but will be encouraged to collaborate with other Eisai R&D centres.

Eisai has two research facilities in the east of the US - in Boston and New Jersey as well as others in the UK and mainland Europe.

Morphotek are currently testing two antibodies in clinical trials, with a third drug being prepared for Phase I testing.

All three therapies are antibodies that recognise specific glycoproteins found in unusually high levels on the surface of a number of cancers.

MORAb-003 is in Phase I/II trials for ovarian cancer, MORAb-009 is being tested in a Phase I testing for pancreatic and lung cancers and MORAb-004 is being prepared for clinical trials.

The latter drug is being investigated as a possible therapy for melanoma and neovascular disease.

These compounds will fit neatly into Eisai's own cancer programme, which received a significant boost when the company bought four marketed, cancer-related products from Ligand Pharmaceuticals last October: Ontak (denileukin), Panretin (alitretinoin) gel and Targretin (bexarotene) capsules and gel.

Eisai has four cancer drugs in clinical development.

Two of these aim to prevent the blood vessel growth that is necessary for a tumour to grow and spread.

The other two are a drug that aims to prevent cell development and a compound that inhibits tubulin proteins binding together to form microtubules.

This process is a crucial part of the cell cycle and other anticancer drugs aim to prevent it occurring.

One example is Taxol (paclitaxel), which is marketed by Bristol-Myers Squibb.

The most advanced anticancer drug in Eisai's pipeline is E7389, which aims to treat breast, lung, prostate, ovarian and sarcoma cancers.

The drug is currently in Phase II trials and also works through disrupting microtubule formation.

Related topics Preclinical Research

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