The biotech spring arrives in Barcelona

BARCELONA -- The theme here at BIO-Europe Spring 2010 is a new season for growing collaborations between Big Pharma and Little Biotech. And the key for developers is being able to fuel drug discovery programs in an environment where there's less cash on hand to fertilize the crops.

Straight in-licensing is out, say the Big Pharma companies. Collaborating with biotech companies in the hope of exchanging cash for an injection of entrepreneurial enthusiasm and innovation--all while managing major internal reorganizations--is in.

"We're very comfortable with having a very light touch" managing drugs through proof-of-concept, Shelagh Wilson, GlaxoSmithKline's vice president in charge of its Centre of Excellence for External Drug Discovery (CEEDD), told the gathering crowd in Barcelona this morning. Glaxo "pioneered option-based deals" she adds, and that is increasingly where the biopharma giant is headed.

For Isabelle Thizon De Gaulle, Sanofi-Aventis' vice president of R&D scouting and partnering, the reality is that the need to diversify in a time of intense internal restructuring has put a spotlight on external relationships. She focused on Sanofi's decision last October to buy Fovea for €370 million as a way to illustrate the company's intent to diversify into new drug platforms and technology, used its $500 million buyout deal with BiPar to discuss its attempt to vaccinate itself with a dose of entrepreneurial spirit, and reviewed how a recent collaboration with a group of French academic groups is a sign of its interest in staying up with innovation without trying to have it all in-house.

Biotech chiefs have heard a lot of this before. But the trend is heating up in Europe, and has some potential surprises for some--on both sides of the Atlantic.

Wilson is out in Barcelona to talk deals, and she's offering any developer that teams up with Glaxo access to in-house expertise at cost along with CROs and other preferred providers at the company's negotiated rate.

Glaxo, of course, is quite choosy about who it partners with, and has some clear ideas in mind as to what it's looking for. As an example, Wilson cited CEEDD's $680 million deal last fall with Prosensa, a Dutch biotech which had a small portfolio of RNA programs in the pipeline for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, or DMD.

Glaxo wound up in-licensing the lead program, which was going into late-stage studies, while optioning the rest of the DMD work. Given that Glaxo had recently established a rare-disease unit, the alliance helped illustrate the company's new-found commitment to orphan drugs as well as its reliance on options for earlier-stage therapies.

It all sounds great from a biotech perspective, but Ignacio Faus, CEO of Palau Pharma, added a note on the potential pitfalls when he mentioned his own out-licensing experience. Back in 2005, he told the crowd, he licensed an early-stage program to Organon, which later merged with Schering-Plough, which later merged with Merck. His program is still in Phase I.

The reality, he says, is that once you license a program to another company, "it's out of your hands." These days, Palau adds, he keeps control of programs through proof-of-concept, and then hands over control. - John Carroll twitter | email