Shire steps up arGEN-X alliance, Big Pharma gives MRC drugs, Woodford backs Midatech IPO

Welcome to the latest edition of our weekly EuroBiotech Report. Shire ($SHPG) impressed analysts this week with its bullish forecasts for sales growth between now and 2020, while also taking steps to ensure its pipeline is well stocked beyond that distant date. The long-term planning included the decision to move antibody candidates discovered in its 2012 alliance with arGEN-X (EBR:ARGX) into preclinical development. ArGEN-X built its business on an antibody discovery platform, a tool Valneva and BliNK Therapeutics hope will serve their new spinout well. Both companies contributed an antibody platform to the startup, BliNK Biomedical. Big Pharma companies turned to academics in the United Kingdom for R&D know-how. A who's who of top companies gave the Medical Research Council 68 dropped drugs to research. And Pfizer ($PFE) tapped King's College London professor Michael Linden to shape its gene therapy ambitions. U.K.-based Midatech pulled off a £32 million ($50 million) IPO, almost half of which came from Neil Woodford's fund. And more. Nick Taylor (email | Twitter)

1. Shire advances arGEN-X discovery alliance into preclinical phase
2. Who's who of Big Pharma give U.K. MRC 68 failed drugs
3. Pfizer gives U.K.-based academic a starring role in its gene therapy play
4. Valneva and BliNK combine antibody platforms to fuel Anglo-French spinout
5. Major contribution from Neil Woodford helps Midatech pull off £32M IPO

And more >>

Shire advances arGEN-X discovery alliance into preclinical phase

Shire ($SHPG) has stepped its alliance with arGEN-X (EBR:ARGX) up a notch by exercising its option to move one or more candidates out of the discovery phase and into preclinical development. The drugs picked by Shire were discovered in the therapeutic antibody alliance it formed with arGEN-X in 2012.

arGEN-X CEO Tim Van Hauwermeiren

Ghent, Belgium-based arGEN-X discovered the therapeutic candidates--which are based on targets from Shire--using its llama-based antibody generation platform. Shire has picked at least one of the candidates for preclinical development, triggering a milestone payment to arGEN-X. The decision marks the first time Shire has picked up its option to license a program resulting from the 2012 alliance, but other deals have suggested the transatlantic biopharma is happy with arGEN-X.

Earlier this year Shire entered into an expanded antibody alliance with arGEN-X. Shire also picked up €12 million ($15 million) worth of arGEN-X shares when the Belgian biotech went public in July. The IPO gave arGEN-X the cash to work on its internal pipeline, the most advanced candidate in which--ARGX-110--is in Phase Ib. ArGEN-X presented preclinical data on ARGX-110 at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting this week.

The ASH data suggest anti-CD70 therapeutic antibody ARGX-110 can reverse resistance to tyrosine kinase inhibitors in patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia. ArGEN-X is testing ARGX-110 in CD70-positive cancer patients with hematologic or solid tumors but has yet to decide which indication to pursue in Phase II. - read the alliance news, ARGX-110 release and FierceBiotech's Shire coverage

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Who's who of Big Pharma give U.K. MRC 68 failed drugs

MRC director of translational research Chris Watkins

The United Kingdom's Medical Research Council (MRC) has gained access to a portfolio of 68 compounds that were once advancing through the pipelines of AstraZeneca ($AZN), GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and 5 other Big Pharma companies. The MRC will dole out funding to U.K. researchers who want to find new uses for the sidelined drugs.

Eli Lilly ($LLY), Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), Pfizer ($PFE), UCB (EBR:UCB) and Takeda round off the list of companies to contribute compounds to the library. Each of the 68 drugs has slipped off the list of priorities at their respective owners, leading to a situation in which development of the once-promising therapies has stalled. In an attempt to revitalize the neglected compounds, the drugmakers have handed them over to the MRC for investigation by the U.K. research community.

Such openness has become more common in recent years as companies have tried to eke value out of drugs in which they are unwilling to invest, but the MRC thinks the arrangement is quantifiably more significant than other deals. "This is the largest collection of compounds to have been put in the public domain by pharma companies," MRC director of translational research Chris Watkins told the Financial Times.

The library is skewed toward drugs with the potential to treat neurological conditions. More than one-third of the compounds cross the blood-brain barrier, one of the many obstacles to treating dementia and other neurological disorders. If the MRC-funded research does yield a new use for one of the drugs, the company that contributed the compound will have the first option to pick it up for further development. - read the FT article (sub. req.)

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Pfizer gives U.K.-based academic a starring role in its gene therapy play

King's College London professor Michael Linden

Pfizer ($PFE) has tasked an academic from King's College London with making it a player in the hot gene therapy space. Professor Michael Linden will spend two years at Pfizer, in which time he will create a gene therapy group within the company's rare disease unit.

Linden is a leading light in the U.K. gene therapy sector. An almost three-year stint as director of the UCL Gene Therapy Consortium is perhaps his standout qualification for the Pfizer gig. The consortium is a Wellcome Trust-funded initiative to turn fundamental gene therapy science into early-phase clinical trial candidates, work that will likely mirror some aspects of what Pfizer hopes its new team will achieve.

UCL now has four active gene therapy trials and another two studies have received the approval of the Gene Therapy Advisory Committee. A further 15 gene therapies are at varying degrees of development at UCL. Linden is personally involved with the development of gene therapies targeting Parkinson's disease, spinal muscular atrophy, lysosomal storage diseases and a range of eye ailments. Adeno-associated virus-based vectors--Linden's specialty--underpin the candidates.

Pfizer hopes Linden can lay the foundations for an R&D unit that will deliver a pipeline of gene therapy candidates. This work will take time, but Pfizer has used its checkbook to buy a shot at a nearer-term gene therapy approval. The Big Pharma has paid $20 million upfront and agreed to pay up to $260 million in milestones for Spark's hemophilia B gene therapy SPK-FIX. - read the release and FierceBiotech's take

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Valneva and BliNK combine antibody platforms to fuel Anglo-French spinout

Valneva CEO Thomas Lingelbach

Valneva (EPA:VLA) and BliNK Therapeutics have founded a new startup based on their respective antibody drug discovery platforms. The new company--BliNK Biomedical--has operations in Lyon, France, and at the GlaxoSmithKline-affiliated ($GSK) Stevenage BioScience Catalyst in the United Kingdom.

Lyon, France-based Valneva pitched the spinout as a way to realize the potential of VIVA|Screen, an antibody discovery platform that secured the company a 6-compound infectious disease deal with Sanofi ($SNY) in 2010. The plan is for BliNK Biomedical to expand into therapeutic fields beyond infectious diseases, theoretically allowing Valneva--which will own almost half of the spinout--to profit from the platform while focusing its own energies on its vaccine business.

Valneva is set to contribute VIVA|Screen and €2 million ($2.5 million) in exchange for a 48.2% stake in BliNK Biomedical. Funds run by Kurma Partners and Idinvest Partners will also chip in around €2 million to get BliNK Biomedical started. "To be successful, a company needs to have a critical mass, focus and the financial means and prospects to expand, and this is exactly what BliNK Biomedical SAS is about," Valneva CEO Thomas Lingelbach said in a statement.

The other major player in the transaction, BliNK Therapeutics, is contributing its own antibody discovery platform, IVV. BliNK Therapeutics spun out of Cancer Research Technology--the commercial wing of nonprofit Cancer Research UK--armed with IVV and £1.1 million in seed funding in June 2011. - read the release (PDF)

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Major contribution from Neil Woodford helps Midatech pull off £32M IPO

Neil Woodford

Midatech (AIM:MTPH) has started trading on AIM. The British nanomedicine specialist pocketed £32 million ($50 million)--almost half of which came from Neil Woodford's fund--and bought Q Chip as a result of the successful IPO.

Woodford Fund Management now owns almost 20% of Midatech, which joins a growing list of British biotechs to attract investment from the organization. Arrowgrass Capital Partners, Legal & General Investment Management and Octopus Investments also came on board as investors, although their combined share is smaller than Woodford's stake. Ferracom Establishment, which owned almost one-quarter of Midatech before the IPO, is the second biggest shareholder with an 11% stake.

Oxford, U.K.-based Midatech sought the support of public investors to finance development of its pipeline candidates, the most advanced of which is set to enter Phase II in patients with Type 1 diabetes early next year. Another diabetes treatment is on the cusp of clinical trials, and programs targeting cancers of the brain, liver, ovaries and pancreas are progressing through preclinical testing. The pipeline is based on Midatech's carbohydrate-coated gold nanoparticles, which can deliver payloads to particular cells.

Midatech has used some of its IPO cash to buy Welsh drug delivery company Q Chip. The deal gives Midatech access to an extended-release technology with the potential to maintain therapeutic activity for months. - read the AIM release and Q Chip news

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Of Note:

Can-Fite BioPharma (TASE:CFBI) committed to further preclinical development of a sexual dysfunction drug. The drug--an A3 adenosine receptor allosteric modulator called CF602--has shown enough potential in early animal tests for Can-Fite to continue the program. Release

Pierre Fabre revealed plans to make deep cuts to its pharma R&D operation. The French pharma hopes to avoid resistance to the cuts in its home territory by finding those affected new jobs within the company or at other businesses. Reuters | FierceBiotech

Anergis began a Phase II trial of its birch pollen allergy vaccine, AllerT. The Swiss biotech is running the trial to evaluate different doses of AllerT ahead of a planned Phase III trial. Release

Versant Ventures made new appointments to its European team. The hires come shortly after Versant wrapped up its oversubscribed $305 million (€246 million) investment fund. Release | FierceBiotech

Bayer HealthCare and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative teamed up to develop an oral drug for river blindness. The deal sees Bayer contribute an active ingredient developed by its animal medicine unit. Release

Pfizer ($PFE) inked an immunotherapy deal with iTeos Therapeutics. Gosselies, Belgium-based iTeos will receive €24 million ($30 million) upfront--and potentially much more in milestones--in return for early-stage drugs that target IDO1 and TDO2. FierceBiotech

Vectura (LSE:VEC) reported positive data from a Phase IIb/III trial of its treatment for severe asthma, VR475. The drug allowed asthma patients to cut their corticosteroid dose while maintaining control of their symptoms. LSE

Circassia (LSE:CIR) suffered a setback. The British biotech reported disappointing data from a Phase IIb trial of its ragweed allergy drug but thinks the product still has potential at higher doses. FierceBiotech

AFFiRiS moved its Parkinson's disease vaccine into Phase I. The Austrian biotech made headlines earlier this year when a placebo in its Phase II Alzheimer's trial appeared to halt disease progression. Release

Genfit (EPA:GNFT) raised €21 million ($26 million) in a private placement. Lille, France-based Genfit raised some of the cash from the U.S. investor community, which is paying close attention to the NASH drug developer. Release

Guangxi Wuzhou Pharmaceutical Group invested $3 million (€2.4 million) in Integra Holdings. Israel-based Integra will use the cash to finance its existing portfolio companies and new businesses based on science developed at the Hebrew University. Release

Sobi (STO:SOBI) licensed the patents for an interleukin-1 beta antagonist treatment of systemic onset juvenile idiopathic arthritis from Baylor Research Institute. Release

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