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Almac’s New Discovery Group Likely to Work with Sister Array-Based Dx Firm

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Almac Group, a Northern Ireland-based pharmaceutical-services company that operates a variety of businesses, including Almac Diagnostics, which sells array-based research tools and tests, announced this week the creation of a new business unit called Almac Discovery.
 
According to the company, Almac Discovery will focus exclusively on developing approaches to treat cancer and associated conditions, with the goal of developing a biomarker or diagnostic in parallel with each potential new therapeutic.
 
As part of its business strategy, Almac Discovery generally will take its projects to the clinical proof-of-concept stage or earlier, before either out-licensing the resulting IP or partnering with an outside drug maker to continue developing the candidate.
 
Stephen Barr, general manager of Almac Discovery, told BioArray News this week that the company will likely use Almac Diagnostics’ array capabilities in its service, which will initially be focused on oncology-related projects.
 
Almac Discovery “obviously plan[s] to collaborate with a number of organizations, but there are a considerable number of skill sets within” the two Almac companies, he said. “I can easily imagine the biomarker-discovery program working with Almac Diagnostics, and any program we take forward will be likely to have companion diagnostics beside compound development. That’s the long-term hope.”
 
Companion diagnostics are very much on the mind of Almac Diagnostics, too. In February, Almac Diagnostics inked a 15-year deal with Affymetrix that will allow the firm to develop and sell tests based on its GeneChip microarray platform through 2023 (see BAN 2/26/2008).
 
To date, Almac Diagnostics has designed a line of disease-specific arrays, or DSAs, for a number of conditions, including breast, colorectal, lung, prostate, and ovarian cancers, that it sells as research tools with the long-term goal of developing them into diagnostics. The company specifically has tests in development for stage 2 colorectal cancer, stage 1 lung cancer, and ductal carcinoma in situ, an early stage of breast cancer.
 

“We obviously plan to collaborate with a number of organizations, but there are a considerable number of skill sets within Almac.”

Paul Harkin, Almac Diagnostics’ president and managing director, said in February that the firm typically works with partners in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries to provide companion diagnostics. He declined at the time to discuss specific projects.
 
And in May, Almac Diagnostics introduced a service for screening formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded samples. The company in May announced that it is offering the FFPE service to Biogen Idec (see BAN 5/13/2008).
 
Barr said that Almac Discovery has an initial interest in prostate cancer and angiogenesis. “Prostate cancer is an area with great market potential for us, but we hope we can utilize any proprietary IP that Almac Diagnostics has owned over the years,” he said. “We are also looking at in-licensing other programs. We’ll see what’s out there. This set up leaves us open to a number of avenues to go down.”
 
Richard Kennedy, vice president of R&D at Almac Diagnostics, told BioArray News this week that Discovery wants to use Diagnostics’ target identification abilities in its programs. “We have a number of DSAs, and, specifically at moment, Discovery is interested in our prostate cancer DSA,” he said. “This is really an ideal platform for drug discovery because it can also be used to screen FFPE samples,” Kennedy added.
 
Kennedy also said that Almac Diagnostics has the capability to do short-interfering RNA library screening. “The reason we collaborate is that we have our own internal expertise in biomarker discovery,” he said. “They are really tapping into this resource.”
 
Setting Up Shop
 
Barr comes to Almac Discovery from Almac Services, where he has worked for the past 13 years. He will continue to head up Services while organizing Discovery, he said. He described the new business as being in its “infancy stage” and said that, ideally, the firm will consist of eight to10 employees, and should be up and running in its own facilities by next January.
 
“We will have a service model with the minimal team needed in-house to validate and outsource the activities we are doing,” said Barr, adding that “a lot of work can be outsourced to a variety of companies.”
 
He noted that the company is looking for local in-licensing opportunities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. “We are in the process of assessing what’s out there. There are a couple of in-licensing opportunities,” Barr said. “We hope to have another couple of programs in-licensed and ongoing in the next few months.”

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