HORSHAM, Pa.—Janssen Biotech Inc., one of the JanssenPharmaceutical companies of Johnson & Johnson, has announced a partnershipwith Araxes Pharma LLC, an affiliate of Wellspring Biosciences LLC, to engagein developing novel therapeutics for cancer treatment.
Under the terms of the partnership, Araxes will receive anunspecified upfront payment and research and development funding, and willbegin early drug development of novel agents against a certain oncology target.Araxes will develop these novel therapeutics through Phase I to clinical proofof concept.
"We've set the bar there, because at that point, you'vedemonstrated patient benefit," says Troy Wilson, president, CEO and co-founderat Wellspring Biosciences.
Beyond that stage, Janssen Biotech will assume soleresponsibility for seeing development through to completion and worldwidecommercialization of products arising under the agreement. Araxes is theneligible to receive milestone payments as well as tiered royalties on theworldwide sales of products developed and commercialized under the agreement.
Although the exact drug target being pursued has not beendisclosed, the founders of Wellspring Biosciences have a recent track record ofsuccess in small-molecule drug discovery, especially related to oncology andinflammation. Four of Wellspring's five founders previously co-foundedIntellikine, a company that discovered three drug candidates against thePI3K/mTOR pathway before being acquired by Millennium: The Takeda OncologyCompany, in January 2012.
"I can say that they are pursuing a novel, high-qualitysmall molecule," says Kellie McLaughlin, oncology therapeutics areacommunications lead for Johnson & Johnson.
If the history of the scientific team responsible for theearly drug development is any indication as to the target, their successesduring their time at Intellikine are worth noting. The lion's share of theirwork pertained to small molecules, as well as chemical matter and crystalstructure. Of the three drug candidates the team developed against thePI3K/mTOR pathway at Intellikine, the first was a PI3Kdelta/gamma inhibitor, whichwas licensed to Infinity Pharmaceuticals in July 2010 in a deal valued up to$489 million.
The other two drug candidates—a TORC1/2 inhibitor and aPI3Kalpha inhibitor—were advanced into human clinical trials before the January2012 acquisition by Millennium Pharmaceuticals.
"We hope to achieve a clinical-stage asset suitable forJanssen to continue to develop," says McLaughlin. "Ultimately, we hope that weend up with a new drug on the market that is filling unmet needs and benefitingpatients."
"Janssen has shown that they know what to do with an agentthat has shown proof of concept—they're very good at that," says Wilson.
Through their experiences at Intellikine, the Wellspringfounders had forged working relationships with many major research groups. Onesuch contact was Peter Lebowitz, an oncology research and developmentspecialist who now oversees Janssen's oncology portfolio. When the Wellspringteam reached out to offer to work with Janssen on this new project, workingtogether seemed a natural fit.
"I have great respect and gratitude for Janssen for givingus the opportunity to engage in this high-profile partnership," says Wilson."We would love nothing more than for Janssen to look back in five years' timeand say, 'this was one of the best collaborations we ever did.'"
Wellspring Biosciences is a privately held organizationfunded by its founders without any venture investment. It is organized as adrug discovery incubator with its scientific programs organized into separate,asset-centered affiliates, of which Araxes Pharma LLC is the first to bepublicly announced.
"Janssen has a philosophy of looking for the best science,wherever it is," says McLaughlin. "We're looking forward to working with Araxesin this new partnership."