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Ligon Discovery Sees Bayer-Schering Deal as Springboard to More Pharma Partnerships

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By Justin Petrone

Ligon Discovery will use its small-molecule microarray screening platform to discover candidates for Bayer Schering Pharma's drug-development programs, the firm said last week.

While further details of the deal were not made public, Ligon is "pleased" with its partnership, not only because of the revenue stream it will provide the year-old Harvard University spinout, but because it could lead to similar partnerships with other pharmaceutical clients.

"We are pleased that the deal, through a combination of upfront revenue, milestone payments and royalties, puts a high value on Ligon’s proprietary technology platform," CEO Christian Bailey told BioArray News this week, noting that the deal is a "collaboration and did not involve any dilution of Ligon's IP estate."

According to Bailey, Ligon is in discussions with "multiple pharma companies" and "large pharma has been interested in collaborating with Ligon on targets which have proven undruggable through all other target-based screening technologies."

Bailey said in a statement last week that the partnership with Bayer Schering is an "opportunity to demonstrate the unique capabilities of SMM, particularly to screen challenging targets and identify unique starting points for drug development."

While bigger players in the array market, most notably Affymetrix, have publicly acknowledged diminishing demand from pharma for their research tools, which in Affy's case has prompted the firm to launch kits for use in more downstream applications, Bailey said Ligon's platform is of interest to pharma because of its ability to bind small molecules.

"Other array technologies have become routine lab tools, but work only with proteins and nucleotides," Bailey said. "Ligon's SMM is the only array technology to bind small-molecule compounds. This is important because it inverts conventional target-based screening methods — affixing the drug candidates to a slide allows using cell lysates rather than developing a complex assay based on a full understanding of a protein target’s functions."

Cambridge, Mass.-based Ligon was founded last year based on technology developed at Harvard. The firm's SMMs are manufactured by spotting unmodified compound collections at high density onto glass slides using its chemical attachment approach, which can spot a range of chemical collections — whether synthetic, natural, bioactive, or diversity-oriented. Using the platform, hundreds of thousands of compounds on SMMs can be rapidly screened in parallel against hundreds of protein targets, according to the firm.

Ligon's platform can be used to screen any existing drug library, including compounds that are more drug-like and amenable to development than those available for screening with other approaches, according to the firm.

Furthermore, because hits from SMM are based on existing compound libraries, they may require less downstream optimization in the form of medicinal chemistry and may progress more rapidly to clinical success, the firm claims.

Bailey said that the company's technology has been validated to work with "all protein targets," including kinases, histone deacetylases, extracellular growth factors, and transcription factors.

Ligon raised $1 million last year to support the launch of the SMM platform, as well as internal drug-discovery and R&D programs (BAN 12/1/2009). The company in February announced a deal with Plymouth, Mich.-based pharmaceutical maker Lycera to identify drug candidates for immune disorders (BAN 2/16/2010).

While Ligon offers its platform as a service, it has previously discussed the possibility that it may launch catalogs based on the SMM platform, including kits that would have known chemical libraries arrayed on SMMs that could be used by biological researchers interested in doing a screen.

This week, Bailey said that Ligon "primary focus" is to fund its internal drug discovery programs focused on coagulation disorders and oncology, and has screened over 80 highly validated targets to date. In addition, he said, Ligon will "continue to partner with pharma companies in select therapeutic areas to further validate and expand our platform."

Ligon is not seeking additional funding at this time, according to Bailey.

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