Attracting big pharma's attention

By Mike Nagle

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Pfizer Immune system

Pfizer has given an insight into what it is about smaller companies
that makes the world's largest pharma company want to buy them.

Dr Alex Chanas, the licensing director at Pfizer outlined the company's strategy behind its recent acquisition of PowderMed.

Speaking at the recent BioTrinity conference in Oxford, Chanas explained why Pfizer decided to get into vaccine research and why they bought PowderMed rather than just doing a license deal.

With many small biotechs running at a loss and relying on a relatively small pipeline for success, a license deal with a big pharma company is often a major goal.

There is also a trend within the industry to start up a company hoping to be bought up, rather than grow the business 'organically'.

With big pharma looking to pad out their pipelines to overcome drug failures, now is a good time for biotechs to capture deals.

"This was a special case as it wasn't an area we were in.

So, once the decision was made to reenter vaccines, Pfizer wouldn't try and catch up with major players in the traditional way," said Chanas - having earlier referred specifically to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Sanofi-Aventis, Wyeth, Merck & Co and Novartis (since its acquisition of Chiron).

"Instead, we looked for a new technology that can be used in other therapeutic areas."

He explained that, in general there were two technology platforms in development: recombinant vector vaccines and DNA vaccines - where DNA delivers an antigen that stimulates and immune response., both of which give better immunological responses than traditional vaccines, potentially leading to both better clinical outcomes and better safety profiles.

PowderMed specialised in DNA vaccines and also a new needle-free delivery method designed to reach more dendritic cells and improve the vaccine's effectiveness.

It is also possible to encode more than one antigen on each piece of DNA, said Chanas.

He added that the potential for the technology to accelerate research and development times and thus reduce time and risk would a driver behind the deal.

The technology can also be used in cancer vaccines.

However, initially at least, Pfizer decided to target a flu vaccine.

This is because of high death rates and comparatively low vaccine rates coupled with limited manufacturing capacity.

Chanas explained that speed of manufacture was also a factor with it only taking nine months to make a new vaccine from the identification of a new strain.

He also added that the PowderMed having clinical compounds factored in the choice.

Chanas revealed that the fact that GSK were investing in the technology and effectively externally validating it also attracted Pfizer.

Chanas named several general reasons why Pfizer decided to invest in vaccines.

He pointed to strong growth in the sector in general - from $6bn (€4.5bn) in 2002 to $10bn in 2005.

He also said there was less risk from generics, a recent step change in pricing and the increased use of vaccines outside of infective disease, such as in cancer.

Also, the emergence of the sector's first blockbuster made industry heads turn with similar success also predicted for HPV vaccines, according to Chanas.

Wyeth's Prevnar is used to immunise toddlers and infants against meningitis causing pneumococcal bacteria.

He then turned to reasons to buy rather than license.

With an acquisition, he highlighted the total control over development, exclusive access and, of course, receiving all the profits as reasons to buy.

However, this must be weighed up against the increased risk, greater initial financial outlay and the possibility of losing key employees and having to pool internal programmes.

Happily for them, those last two didn't factor into the PowderMed acquisition with Pfizer keeping its Oxford site open to facilitate the merger.

Related topics Preclinical Research

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