Roche teams with Molecular Partners on armed proteins in $1B-plus deal

Switzerland's Molecular Partners is convinced that it has created a better delivery vehicle for cancer drugs, and Roche ($RHHBY) is promising to pay up to a billion dollars-plus to see if they're right.

In the deal Molecular Partners will get a starting payment of $60 million, research funding to support the partnership and potentially more than a billion dollars in milestone payments as well as tiered royalties on any successes.

Molecular Partners coined the term DARPin to describe their delivery vehicle, which has been designed to zero in on cancer cells for precision delivery of highly toxic cancer killers too dangerous to allow to roam freely in the human body. Using the same strategy, armed antibodies have become a hot prospect in the development world, with Roche's Kadcyla attracting oncologists' attention globally.

Molecular Partners, though, isn't using antibodies. They're engineering small proteins to do the delivery work, claiming a better ability to attach to different epitopes than antibodies, which the company believes can give their tech a definite edge over the wave of antibody-drug conjugates in the clinic.

The collaboration also marks a more aggressive stance for Roche's pRED R&D division, which has been reorganizing and rethinking its drug-development strategy after some major setbacks. The new director of pRED, John Reed, held onto oncology research as a key focus for the group, despite the dominant role that Genentech (gRED) has held in that field since the pharma giant gained control of the company. And Reed vowed to trigger a slate of new deals as he directed his unit to focus on more exciting arenas of R&D.

The deal also marks a big advance for Molecular Partners, which added a $1.5 billion development deal with Allergan ($AGN) last year to use DARPins to target wet, age-related macular degeneration. That was their second pact.

 "We are excited about this collaboration as the DARPin platform is truly complementary to our internal capabilities in the large molecule space," says Sylke Poehling, head of large molecule research at Roche. "In the field of drug conjugates, we have identified an excellent opportunity to combine our expertise with the leading company in non-antibody scaffold technology to develop transformative cancer medicines."

- here's the release (PDF)

Special Report: John Reed sets out on a long-distance run at Roche's pRED