Envoy for metabolic disorders

Envoy pairs with Merck affiliate to discover novel diabetes and obesity drug targets

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JUPITER, Fla.—Envoy Therapeutics has struck a multi-year research collaboration deal with an affiliate of Merck to discover novel diabetes and obesity drug targets. In the collaboration, Envoy will use its bacTRAP technology to identify proteins expressed specifically in certain cell types. For its part, Merck will work to identify and develop compounds that modulate protein targets with therapeutic potential for the treatment of metabolic disorders.

Merck will pay Envoy an upfront fee and research funding. In addition, Envoy is eligible to receive payments upon achievement of certain milestones associated with development of drug candidates and royalties on any products derived from the collaboration.

Envoy Therapeutics' bacTRAP technology enables the identification of proteins in vivo that are produced by specific cell types without requiring the isolation of those cells. The technology is especially powerful in tissues of the brain, where many hundreds of cell types are intermingled. Envoy's work is unique because therapeutically modulating the activity of a specific cell type has until now been prevented by the inability to determine which proteins are uniquely expressed by that cell type.

Brad Margus, co-founder and chief executive officer of Envoy, points out that obesity and diabetes "have become epidemics with horrific mortality rates and devastating social stigmas."

At least 180 million people worldwide suffer from diabetes. Its incidence is increasing rapidly, and it is estimated that by the year 2030, this number will almost double. In the United States alone, there are roughly 24 million people with diabetes, while another 57 million people are estimated to be pre-diabetic. It has been estimated that diabetes costs $132 billion per year in the United States alone.

Obesity is a leading cause of death worldwide, with increasing prevalence in both adults and children. Health authorities view it as one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century. Obesity increases the likelihood of numerous diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breathing difficulties during sleep, certain types of cancer and osteoarthritis.

"We're thrilled that our technology will be applied towards discovering drug candidates for the growing millions of patients that suffer from these conditions," he says.

Envoy is a newcomer to the drug discovery playing field. It closed its first financing round in October. It raised $8 million through a private placement with 5AM Ventures, Takeda Research Investment and Roche Venture Fund. In November, Envoy secured a loan from Takeda Research Investment, which Envoy may elect to convert to preferred stock should the company complete a second private equity financing. TRI will receive certain rights from Envoy related to a specific therapeutic field, while scientists at the two companies have also forged a research alliance.

Now the world's second-biggest drug company, Merck is expected to garner 2010 sales of $45 billion. But Merck needs big new drugs to fill its pipeline because its $3.4 billion-a-year hypertension pills Cozaar and Hyzaar face generic rivals in April. An even bigger blow looms in 2012, when asthma treatment Singulair—the company's biggest product with annual sales of $4.5 billion—faces generic competition.

Merck's pipeline is pretty robust, thanks to several promising compounds it acquired in its recent merger with Schering-Plough Corp. Merck's array of experimental drugs could achieve annual revenue of $10.4 billion by 2015, with more than half coming through the Schering-Plough deal, Credit Suisse analyst Catherine Arnold told Reuters.

"The question is what these companies will look like on the other side of their patent expirations, whether they can bring more drugs to market, and we're optimistic Merck's pipeline will navigate them through," says Edward Jones analyst Linda Bannister.
With the Envoy partnership, Merck is hoping to add to its pipeline, which already includes several candidates, including MK-0431c, which is in Phase III; MK-0893 and MK-0941, both in Phase II; and MK-4074, currently in Phase I.

"Partnering with companies developing innovative drug discovery technologies like Envoy is an essential part of our diabetes and obesity portfolio discovery strategy," notes Nancy A. Thornberry, senior vice president and franchise head of diabetes and obesity at Merck Research Laboratories.

Merck collaborates with AnaptysBio on novel antibody therapeutics

SAN DIEGO—In February, Merck also announced that it will collaborate with AnaptysBio Inc., a privately held therapeutic antibody platform and product company, on the development of novel antibody therapeutics to a specified disease target.

Under the terms of the agreement, AnaptysBio will be responsible for generating novel antibodies to a specified disease target using its proprietary somatic hypermutation (SHM) technology platform. Merck will receive worldwide rights to develop and commercialize antibodies optimized by AnaptysBio. AnaptysBio received an upfront sum and is eligible to receive milestone payments and royalties associated with the development and sale of any products derived from the collaboration. Specific financial details were not released.

AnaptysBio's SHM platform uses the key components of somatic hypermutation (SHM), the body's natural process for generating potent antibodies to fight disease, and other techniques such as mammalian cell expression/display and flow cytometry to generate antibodies for therapeutic applications through an iterative process of natural evolution and high-throughput selection—a process that has been referred to as "naturalizing" antibodies. The platform can be used both to discover and optimize antibodies directed at specific disease targets and mature existing antibodies to improve their binding properties. AnaptysBio says it has established broad intellectual property around the use of SHM for therapeutic antibody applications, and is currently building a pipeline of novel therapeutic antibody product candidates.

"Our SHM platform generates antibodies in a human-like manner that recapitulates in the laboratory what the body naturally does when creating antibodies to fight disease. This is achieved without the constraints and limitations often imposed by the body which can limit success," says Tom Smart, chairman and CEO for AnaptysBio. "The platform provides a powerful new approach for the generation of antibodies to meet challenging therapeutic design goals."

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