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Leveraging Antibodies

Executive Summary

Human antibodies are hot. Three leading companies with patented means for making them are battling for partners and strategic position, anxious to sign alliances before current competitors muscle in, or next-generation technologies come along. Abgenix and Medarex effectively share a duopoly on transgenic mice that make human antibodies. Both firms license their technologies on an antigen-by-antigen basis, but are moving to build more value by deploying the methods on their own behalf, and via 50/50 deals with companies willing to share targets and development costs. Cambridge Antibody Technology is the leading promoter of phage-display technology, a bacterially-based, relatively high throughput method of making human antibody fragments that can be used as reagents to validate targets, or built up into drugs. Owning products is the end-game for all three players. But their approaches to the goal differ, particularly in the way they're structuring deals and the number of products they intend to put into clinical development.

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Who's Got Game in Antibody Development?

The handful of firms with established bioprocessing capabilities has dominating advantages in antibody drug development. Because process varies little from one antibody to another, they can wait for and quickly pounce on fast-follower opportunities, expanding production capacity in a modular fashion as demand requires--and in this way minimize target risk. Meanwhile, smaller companies, which cannot buy their way into the game nor compete in the more mature world of fast followers, are using their technology development expertise to come up with good drugs against novel targets in diseases where no antibody treatments currently exist, hoping that the novelty of the resulting products will give them the kind of leverage they haven't been able to get from platform dealmaking.

Who's Got Game in Antibody Development?

The handful of firms with established bioprocessing capabilities has dominating advantages in antibody drug development. Because process varies little from one antibody to another, they can wait for and quickly pounce on fast-follower opportunities, expanding production capacity in a modular fashion as demand requires--and in this way minimize target risk. Meanwhile, smaller companies, which cannot buy their way into the game nor compete in the more mature world of fast followers, are using their technology development expertise to come up with good drugs against novel targets in diseases where no antibody treatments currently exist, hoping that the novelty of the resulting products will give them the kind of leverage they haven't been able to get from platform dealmaking.

RNAi Revs Up

Scientists have recently recognized an apparently fundamental cellular mechanism that may be a sort of ancient immune system. Called RNAi, for RNA interference, the process utilizes pieces of double-stranded RNA to prevent gene expression. RNAi has quickly become a powerful research tool, but its real promise lies in its potential to generate a brand-new class of highly specific medicines. Researchers have only just begun to explore how RNAi works in mammalian cells, so there's no telling if it actually will give rise to therapeutics. A growing number of companies are betting they'll be able to turn the fad into fortunes. Already, some of the challenges to commercialization are obvious: how to deliver the RNA, and who if anyone will control intellectual property rights. Some firms aim to directly deliver short sequences of RNA, and those who travel this route may confront challenges similar to those faced by antisense companies. Others are trying gene therapy approaches and will inherit all the problems of that field. As in any new field, bluster and blather are mixed with secrecy about who has what in terms of technology, money, and patents. The winner is likely to be the first company that can reduce concept to practice, and come up with a drug that works.

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