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At Molecular Medicine Marketplace, Keeping Score of Biotech Success

SANTA CLARA, March 18 - At the conference formerly known as the Genome Tri-Conference (and now known as Cambridge Healthtech Institute's Molecular Medicine Marketplace) more has changed than just the name.


Instead of tools and technologies, therapeutics and clinical trials have emerged as the watchwords of the day. And according to Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Director of Technology Licensing Christopher Dippel, the time has come to pick winners and losers among the many biotechs that have based their drug discovery programs on large-scale gene and protein analysis.


In a talk here today, Dippel described his recent analysis of 26 public biotech companies founded between 1989 and 2001, including DeCode Genetics, Human Genome Sciences, Exelixis, and GeneFormatics. His "biotech score card" ranked the companies according to their success in raising money, acquiring partnerships, and delivering products to the marketplace.


Although Dippel cautioned that his analysis did not represent Wyeth corporate policy, he said that "sufficient time has passed for biotechs to have advanced their internal drug discovery programs." Five to ten years, he told GenomeWeb, is a reasonable time to expect these companies to have something to show for their efforts.


Dippel developed his semi-quantitative analysis by producing a score for the 26 companies in each of three categories: their annual capital investment, averaged over the lifetime of the company; their number of partnerships, weighted by the size of the partner; and what has emerged from their pipelines. He used a scoring scheme that accounts for a company's success in moving products through the clinic and regulatory approval process.


Perhaps not surprisingly, Dippel found that older companies tended to score higher in each of the three categories. Millennium Pharmaceuticals, founded in 1993, ranked near the top in terms of annual capital investment, along with Vertex Pharmaceuticals (1989) and Human Genome Sciences (1992). In number of partnerships, Millennium and HGS also scored well, but Abgenix, founded in 1996, beat them out as the top scorer.


But when it came to scoring the 26 biotechs on the basis of success in the clinic, things got a little more interesting. Ligand, which has four FDA-approved drugs, received the highest marks, followed closely by Vertex and Isis Pharmaceuticals. On the bottom end of the scale lay DeCode, Lexicon Genetics, and Athersys. Dippel noted some biotechs that were relatively successful at raising money and signing partnerships fared significantly less well in his analysis on their ability to deliver products to the clinic. As examples, he cited Millennium, Exelixis, and Lexicon, in contrast to the relatively capital-poor Ligand, Isis, and Corixa.


Dippel said a company's ability to validate targets and then rapidly develop a therapeutic against them correlated with success in the clinic-with Abgenix as a notable example. Companies that tended to focus on protein families known for their susceptibility as targets also tended to have relatively greater success developing products.


Furthermore, he said companies that employed whole genome analysis techniques as the primary thrust of their drug discovery program-such as HGS-tended to have more clinical success than those that relied on techniques such as population genetics studies-such as DeCode. And of the more recently founded biotechs in his study, Deltagen, GeneFormatics, and Raven seemed to have "delivered the most on their technology," he said.


Dippel added, however, that his "analysis" was necessarily subjective, and it assumed all the companies' therapeutics were equal in their efficacy and revenue potential. But he encouraged his audience to mimic his study, as a way of choosing potential partners, or simply getting to know one's competition. "You should not be ashamed to make comparisons," he said.

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