EP Vantage Interview – Molecular Partners maximises monopoly on DARPins

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It is perhaps better to have a few close friends than many vague acquaintances. The $62.5m deal struck by Molecular Partners with Allergan last week is the latest move in the Swiss firm’s strategy of forming broad alliances for its DARPin platform. Molecular Partners is the sole firm developing these proteins for commercial applications, and plans to exploit its monopoly by generating new products to license out in future.

The collaboration is all part of Molecular Partners' master plan, chief executive Christian Zahnd tells EP Vantage. “The strategy is to generate and develop differentiated molecules, bring them through proof of concept, and then look for leaders in the field, to ally for the development, phase III and marketing of the programmes.” This approach ought to allow the firm to be less dependent on fundraising rounds in future.

The deal with Allergan actually comprises two separate agreements – one a straight licencing deal covering a DARPin called MP0260, intended for the treatment of wet AMD, and the other a discovery collaboration that will see the companies design and develop DARPin molecules against ophthalmological targets.

The deals build on an earlier association between the two firms formed last year when Allergan licensed the rights to the wet AMD and diabetic macular oedema therapy MP0112 (Allergan sees dosing potential in Molecular Partners' AMD candidate, May 5, 2011).

Designed ankyrin repeat proteins, or DARPins, are an attempt to combine antibodies' strong binding affinity with small molecules' ease of development. They can be designed to bind to “virtually any target”, Dr Zahnd says, and a single DARPin can bind to more than one protein. “MP0260 is a dual antagonist; one moiety blocks VEGF, and a second moiety blocks PGDF. Blocking two mechanisms of action has the potential to lead to a much more stable drying of the eye.” Theoretically, he says, DARPins could be designed with five or more specificities.

Eyes on the prize

The decision to pursue wet AMD as an indication is an interesting one; two thirds of patients are treated with off-label Avastin, while Roche’s related antibody Lucentis has the largest market share of the drugs that are actually approved for wet AMD. The clue to Molecular Partners’ strategy here is provided by Regeneron’s Eylea. This product is expected to have carved out a respectable share from Lucentis as it is dosed less frequently, being injected into the eye once every two months compared with monthly jabs for Lucentis and Avastin.

MP0112, the molecule Allergan licensed last year, is longer lasting, and could be administered once every three or four months. Dr Zahnd says the pharmacokinetics of MP0260 suggest that it could last at least as long. “We don’t expect it to be any worse, but rather better than MP0112.”

Molecular Partners aims to build a few significant partnerships, each specific to a particular therapy area. “The business and partnering strategy of Molecular Partners has always been not to spread the technology too broadly, so there is no interest in partnering for single products or targets with a whole range of different parties. Instead we go with a few very committed parties,” Dr Zahnd explains.

As well as its ophthalmological association with Allergan, the firm has a collaboration with J&J’s Janssen unit that includes a multispecific IL4/IL13 antagonist being developed for the treatment of asthma. “We have a broad alliance with Johnson & Johnson in immunology, where there are at least four products,” says Dr Zahnd. 

The third main area Molecular Partners is exploring is oncology, in which it has “quite a significant pipeline”. Here the firm has not yet formed a partnership. Dr Zahnd says that adding additional alliances is not a strategic key focus for the firm right now, but confirms that developing and licensing out new DARPins is the firm’s “business model for the near and mid-term future.”

Luxurious position

The strategy could ultimately place the firm above needing to seek cash. “The company is very well positioned; we have significant amounts of cash in the bank,” Dr Zahnd says. “In very tough times, the company is in a very nice and luxurious position. But cash in these days for fast-growing biotech is always king, and if there is any way we can raise additional cash, that’s always something we would consider.” He says that Molecular Partners currently has cash reach of a couple of years.

In the future, Dr Zahnd hopes, DARPins will be considered as important a class of molecules as antibodies or small molecules. The other factor that could place Molecular Partners in a good position is the patent protection it has on the DARPin technology. “We have a very strong intellectual property estate, and it will be surprising if anybody found a legal way of being able to do that,” Dr Zahnd says.

“There are academic players that work with DARPins – it’s a very exciting platform many people are keen to be able to work with – but under the commercial umbrella it’s only possible with Molecular Partners.”

To contact the writer of this story email Elizabeth Cairns in London at elizabethc@epvantage.com

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