Pfizer spending a little on Icagen in hope of winning big

Pfizer’s announcement earlier this week that it is considering “entering into a strategic transaction with Icagen” has firmly put the tiny North Carolina company on the map, and more than doubled its share price to $6.85 today. Icagen’s novel ion channel approach to dealing with pain is the reason why the US pharma giant wants to deepen its existing relationship.

A move by Pfizer was predicted back in September 2009 by EP Vantage, with the caveat that it was unlikely to happen anytime soon (Icagen provides timely boost for strategic review options, September 2, 2009). The timing of the decision could be due to the fact that a second extension to the groups' original 2007 deal is due to come to an end in December 2011.

Small beer

The original agreement granted Pfizer exclusive worldwide rights to develop and commercialise compounds that modulate three specific sodium ion channels. It also left Icagen eligible to receive $359m in milestone payments and tiered royalties.

Pfizer may have decided to skip having to potentially make these payments and snap up all or part of Icagen - a statement said a change of control through a share buy up or merger was being contemplated.

It should also be remembered that despite the share price uplift Icagen is still only worth $47m, pocket change for the likes of Pfizer with $24bn cash on its balance sheet..

What makes Icagen an attractive throw of the investment dice is that there has been little or no recent innovation in pain. Most pain treatment and management is still dominated by opiates, Cox II inhibitors, triptans and NSAIDS, all of which have unwanted side effects. 

Meanwhile the showing of Pfizer’s hand also follows the rejection last week of Pain Therapeutics and Durect’s Remoxy, a product that Pfizer had acquired rights to  with its purchase of King Pharmaceuticals (Painful damage as Remoxy is rejected again, June 24, 2011). With one door on pain closing, Pfizer could be trying to open a completely new one.

New channel

Diverting away from these traditional pain development paths, Icagen has focused on ion channels, in particular sodium, calcium and potassium as a way of moderating pain. Sodium ion channels, which the Pfizer collaboration are focused around, are important in the generation of electrical signals in nerve fibres, which control the initiation, transmission and experience of pain.

Selectively targeting these ion channels, in particular the sodium channel NAV1.7 or SCN9A, means the detection, transmission and actual recognition of pain can be reduced. Mutation of this channel causing loss of function has been linking to the inability to experience pain, conversely increased expression of this channel is thought to be behind extreme pain disorders.

Although Icagen’s products are at a very early stage, if they are successful they would give Pfizer a brand new way into a medically underserved multibillion dollar market.

This mechanism is thought to have wider potential - inflammation is also thought to be influenced by ion channels and Icagen has pre-clinical research projects in the area.

Murky past

However, the company has not been without its set backs and none of its products have made it past phase II.

In September 2010 the company’s shares fell more than 25% after it suspended enrolment of a phase II trial for its lead drug ICA-105665 for photosensitive epilepsy, due to a serious adverse event. The drug had also earlier that year failed in a phase Ib pain trail.

Prior to that asthma drug, senicapoc, was abandoned after failing to meet its primary endpoint in reducing symptoms.

With this rather checkered history behind the technology Pfizer is taking a gamble, albeit an affordable one at this stage. If Icagen does eventually produce a new way for treating pain it will prove an exceptionally lucrative bet.

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