Emerging Drug Developer: Astex Therapeutics

Two years after FierceBiotech picked Astex Therapeutics in the UK as one of our Fierce 15 companies to watch, the biotech company is still rolling up impressive licensing deals with big pharma.

Today Astex announced a $537 million licensing deal with Janssen Pharmaceutica covering FGFR inhibitors for cancer discovered by its fragment-based drug discovery platform. And the deal - which provides $37 million upfront -- includes a research collaboration for two more cancer targets. 

Harren Jhoti, the CEO, called it another landmark deal. This partnership is "another testament to Astex's position as the leader in fragment-based drug discovery and the productivity generated by our platform," he says. 

"I think there's been a huge amount of interest in fragment-based drug development," Jhoti tells FierceBiotech. Big pharma and biotech companies have been trying this approach, he adds, "but I think it's quite clear that we remain the world leader." 

The new Janssen deal underscores the private company's approach to funding part of its operations through sizeable collaborations sparked by its discovery platform. In today's pact, Janssen R&D arm Ortho Biotech Research & Development agreed to pay for the development costs of the programs while giving Astex an option on co-commercialization rights in the U.S. - a key provision for many developers looking to the future. There are also plenty of major milestones - which bring the deal's potential value to more than $500 million plus royalties. 

Astex has been signing impressive research pacts for a number of years now with a group of elite pharma companies active in oncology. Its fragment-based discovery engine uses high-throughput x-ray crystallography to identify low-molecular-weight drug fragments which can be optimized and developed in the clinic. Astex believes that the approach can be used to develop best-in-class therapies. And that approach has brought in partners like AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim and Novartis. 

In addition to its slate of collaborations underway, Astex also has several proprietary therapies in the clinic. Its lead program is AT7519, a cell-cyle inhibitor that targets cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs). AT9283 is an inhibitor of Aurora kinases A and B, which play a role in cell division. By interrupting that role, Astex researchers believe they can change the way that tumors progress. It's now in Phase I/II trials as a monotherapy for acute leukemias. AT9311 is an orally active cell cycle inhibitor. A fourth program, AT13387, is an inhibitor of Heat Shock Protein 90. 

Jhoti notes that key milestones for Astex over the course of the year include a presentation at ASH in December on AML data and further development of its HSP90 program. The CEO also isn't done developing new collaborations for Astex. 

Jhoti and Dr. David Rees, Astex's vice president of medicinal chemistry, were both recently recognized by the Royal Society of Chemistry for their work in oncology. But Astex has shown it can also be astute at the business of drug discovery. 

Jhoti, who was chief scientific officer before he was promoted to CEO, recognized early on that pharma companies were anxious to beef up pipelines to counter a chorus of criticism that they were ill-prepared for the day when patent protection on key blockbusters would expire. And with big players all coming to the table at the same time, Astex was able to leverage its discovery platform into a series of big-euro deals.  

"From day one we've followed a hybrid business model," says Jhoti. "We've looked to do deals and keep a reasonable amount of our efforts focused on internal programs. And there's a capacity for further deals." 

That money has augmented a string of financings for Astex. The biotech raised 20 million euros last year, adding to the $90 million in venture capital that it rounded up

in two early rounds. Its investors include Novartis, Advent International, Alta Partners, GIMV, Abingworth and Oxford Biosciences. 

The company had raised the prospect of an IPO by now, and most European biotechs at this stage of cancer development would have already gone public. But with the public markets in deplorable shape for biotechnology players, that's one part of the vision that hasn't been realized. 

"We took a very serious look last year at the potential of an IPO and decided it probably isn't a good time to go public," says Jhoti. "There's a lot of downside given the climate out there." 

Still, oncology presents a long, hard slog through the clinic, and companies like Astex need plenty of capital to keep advancing the science. And Jhoti says that if the public markets do turn around in the next 12 to 18 months, Astex will be positioned to capitalize on it. 

Emerging Drug Developer: Astex Therapeutics

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