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Ambrx Closes New Deal With Bristol-Myers

In rapid succession San Diego’s Ambrx Inc. has received sizable payouts from sizable drug companies, most recently penning a cancer drug development deal with New York-based Bristol-Myers Squibb.

This comes just a month after it entered a similar agreement with Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas Pharma Inc.

The privately held Ambrx received $15 million upfront from Bristol-Myers Squibb, and could bring in up to $97 million in milestone payments per product.

In the Astellas deal, it also received $15 million up front, with additional payments that could tally as high as $285 million. And in June 2012, Ambrx entered a drug discovery collaboration with Merck & Co. Inc., bringing in $15 million upfront and up to $288 million more in milestone payments.

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This is the third Bristol-Myers Squibb deal for Ambrx. The first two were made in September 2011, bringing in an upfront payment of $24 million. BMS received worldwide rights to develop and commercialize drugs coming from the deals.

Such deals are commonplace between small biotech companies and larger pharmaceutical companies. They allow large pharmaceutical companies to bring in a steady flow of drugs into their development pipeline without having to do all the work in-house, and small companies like Ambrx are able to use the funds to expand their company as they see fit.

“These deals between big pharmas and biotech companies here — for the past 15 years, they’ve been growing, evolving,” said Joe Panetta, president of San Diego life sciences trade organization Biocom. “As big pharma starts to see patent expiration issues and challenges around developing big blockbuster drugs, you see more and more of these partnerships.”

‘Very Specific Technology Platform’

Ambrx was founded in 2003, based on the findings from Scripps Research Institute’s Peter Schultz. The company’s work is based on a technology that uses what are called antibody drug conjugates. It uses microscopic proteins called antibodies to deliver toxins that ultimately kill tumors or specific cancerous cells.

“The reason Ambrx is doing so well is because of the very specific technology platform discovered at Scripps that allows us to do something no one else can do — design a molecule that carries a toxin that has optimal safety and efficacy,” said Ambrx CEO Lawson Macartney.

The privately held company employs 55, but Macartney said it may hire a few more to accommodate the company’s growth resulting from these collaborations.

Macartney said that the money that Ambrx gets from deals with companies like Astellas and Bristol-Myers Squibb isn’t necessarily funneled exclusively into developing the disease targets that the big pharma want.

“The upfront dollars are for us to channel as we see fit,” he said.

This offers flexibility for the company to develop other products in its pipeline — provided a stringent workflow plan has been agreed upon between the companies.

For example, the disease targets in this most recent Bristol-Myers Squibb deal are confidential, but Macartney said that the company will use the newfound funds to develop its extended-release version of human growth hormone.

The research for this synthetic hormone, called ARX201, is purely fueled by Ambrx researchers and doesn’t have any external stakeholders. It’s preparing for Phase 3 clinical trials — an expensive endeavor, but feasible because of these external partnerships that are technically focused on other disease targets.

“We have a very large internal effort in developing our own molecules,” Macartney said. “We do have a number of partnerships in the public domain, but we have several molecules we’re developing ourselves. We’re fully funding it, and fully managing it.”

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