Roche taps Warp Drive to discover novel antibiotic classes in $387M pact

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Roche has teamed up with Warp Drive Bio to access novel classes of antibiotics. The Big Pharma will pay up to $387 million to license and advance certain classes from the more than 100 groups of possibly novel antibiotics Warp Drive is analyzing.

Warp Drive will receive up to $87 million through an upfront payment, option fees and preclinical milestones. Those payments cover the work Warp Drive will do, with Roche’s input on strategy and prioritization, to get development candidates ready for its partner to take forward. Beyond that, Roche is on the hook for up to $300 million in clinical, regulatory and sales milestones.

The deal gives Roche access to a rare natural source of novel classes of potential antibiotics and will leave Warp Drive with worldwide rights to classes of antibiotics not taken forward by Roche. 

Such novel classes of natural antibiotics used to flow out of pharma research labs at a reasonable rate. But the faucet ran dry more than 30 years ago, contributing to companies cutting investment in the sector shortly before the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria began dialing up the need for novel antibiotics. 

Warp Drive’s answer is to go back to the soil armed with modern technologies. The approach to drug discovery pairs a bacterial genome database with bioinformatics tools to identify genes that code for the synthesis of novel natural products. Warp Drive extracts these genes and analyzes natural products they express, before tweaking the resulting potential antibiotics with chemical technologies to create drug candidates.  

“It enables us to do discovery of natural products more comprehensively and on a larger scale … than the industry was historically able to do,” Warp Drive CEO Laurence Reid, Ph.D., said.

That has proven to be an attractive proposition to Big Pharma. Warp Drive emerged in 2012 with A-listed founders—Gregory Verdine, Ph.D., George Church, Ph.D., and James Wells, Ph.D.—and investors, plus a deal that would allow Sanofi to buy it at a later date. Sanofi set Warp Drive free last year when it dropped its option in favor of a multiasset, $750 million collaboration.

RELATED: Sanofi drops option, inks $750M R&D collaboration with Warp Drive Bio

Warp Drive celebrated its freedom by striking a cancer deal with GlaxoSmithKline and now the antibiotic pact with Roche. 

The new deal is notable for its focus on novel, natural classes of antibiotics that hit drug-resistant, Gram-negative pathogens. Warp Drive has worked on antibiotics with Sanofi, but its earlier forays into the field aimed to find new drugs in existing classes. The Roche deal goes a step further by hunting for novel classes of natural antibiotics, something no researcher has found in decades. 

Big Pharma’s retreat from antibiotic drug discovery has potentially contributed to the slump in output. Roche bucked the trend by re-entering the field a few years back, striking a string of deals with biotechs forging ahead in the then-unfashionable sector.

In parallel, perceptions of the potential of the field among the people who perform and fund some early-stage research have started to shift.

“I think there's increasing recognition in the biotech sector and [among] people who invest in biotech companies that innovation in this field is so badly needed from a global medical perspective that it becomes a potentially interesting area in which to invest,” Reid said.