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Evotec Drug Discovery Spin-Off Works With Boehringer; Tech Unit Inks Deal With Qiagen

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Evotec Neurosciences and its former parent company, Evotec OAI, last week signed a drug-discovery deal with Boehringer-Ingelheim designed to identify and develop small molecules against certain GPCR targets.

The hope is to identify clinical candidate therapeutics with the understanding that Boehringer would take the helm in clinically evaluating, manufacturing, and commercializing any compounds. Evotec said that Boehringer would pay it royalties and fund research and development efforts along the way. Evotec also said that, at least at first, the Boehringer agreement will focus on CNS disorders.

Meanwhile, Evotec Technologies, a subsidiary of Evotec OAI, earlier this week announced that it has signed an agreement with Qiagen in which the companies will co-promote the use of Qiagen’s TOM-amidites chemistry based on RNAi products with Opera, Evotec’s flagship plate scanner, for the purposes of genome-wide gene expression studies for drug discovery and basic research.

Financial details were not disclosed for either collaboration.

The Evotec Neurosciences deal marks the company’s second major drug-discovery collaboration, and the first since it was spun out of German drug maker Evotec OAI in April.

In August 2003, Evotec Neurosciences — still a subsidiary of Evotec OAI — entered into a target validation collaboration with Takeda. Eight months later, Evotec Neurosciences initiated its spin-off from Evotec OAI by raising €25 million ($31 million) in a first round of venture-capital financing. Evotec Neurosciences became a stand-alone company with its former parent assuming a 42-percent stake in the firm. Evotec OAI is traded on Deutsche Borse, the major German stock exchange. Evotec Neurosciences is privately held.

“We should make it clear that Evotec Neurosciences is not a service company,” John Kemp, Evotec Neuro’s CEO told Inside Bioassays last week. “We’re a product company. So in the neuroscience area, and particularly in Alzheimer’s and neurological diseases, our focus is to develop new drugs. We are leveraging the capabilities within Evotec OAI to screen targets and get lead compounds to develop through to clinical compounds.”

In addition, Evotec Neurosciences in March licensed an extensive patent portfolio from Roche covering select NMDA receptor antagonists to treat CNS disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, neuropathic pain, and Parkinson’s disease. This acquisition was spearheaded by Kemp, who helped develop the compounds while he was head of Roche’s CNS research.

Evotec Neurosciences’ business model echoes that of several new breeds of drug-development companies that have developed a marketable suite of screening tools, but remain dedicated to their own internal drug-discovery efforts.

A recent example of this is San Diego-based Kalypsys, which despite recently scoring a huge contract from the NIH for its high-throughput screening platforms, stressed its commitment to developing therapeutic compounds. (see Inside Bioassays, 7/13/2004).

In addition to leveraging its former parent company’s drug discovery services, Evotec Neurosciences will conduct a large portion of its drug screening on the Opera and Evoscreen Mark III instrumentation platforms marketed by Evotec Technologies, which produces a range of HTS and HCS instruments.

The Evoscreen is Evotec Neurosciences’ integrated screening platform, with microfluidics, dispensing, and plate-reading technology. At the heart of this platform is Opera, Evotec’s entry in the confocal-based, benchtop plate reader market. It has three laser lines and multiple filter sets for multi-color fluorescence analysis, and can acquire more than 200,000 images a day, the firm said.

Dirk Ullman, director of biology services for Evotec OAI, said that although the Opera is the backbone of the Evoscreen system, the company also markets it as a stand-alone device for cell-based screening that is compatible with other instrumentation, software, and assay platforms.

The Qiagen deal should be a boost for the Opera product in this regard, as the companies will develop a series of application notes for their customers that describe how the two products can be used in combination.

Although Evotec Technologies also markets instruments for biochemical screening, cell sorting, and genotyping, among other applications, Ullman noted that the company is aware of the rush toward live-cell assays, and is planning its future business strategy accordingly.

It wasn’t always this way. “Originally, we set up Evoscreen aiming more or less exclusively towards biochemical assays,” Ullman said. In 2002 the company set up the Mark III platform for biochemical or cellular assays. “In our interactions with customers, we’ve gotten more and more requests for cellular assays, so it was a natural evolution of our business,” said Ullman. “It’s probably a 50-50 ratio today. It’s obvious that customers are keen to go as in vivo as they can.”

Ullman cited Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and Novartis as some of its most prominent customers, adding that these collaborations revolve prominently around instrumentation, but also include some assay development services from Evotec OAI.

“A major goal is to develop business around the Opera platform, based on the fact that there’s a need beyond HTS,” said Ullman. “And there are several areas where such instrumentation is needed. The biggest bottlenecks are no longer in HTS or target identification; it’s much more looking at [underlying] processes.

“However, we are not relying completely on the Opera,” Ullman added. “We can do several types of cellular and biochemical assays.”

For the Boehringer collaboration, Evotec will be using a variety of assays developed in-house for GPCR screening. “The assay that we run will be taken on a case-by-case basis, depending on the target and the tools available,” Kemp said. “It’s going to vary, I suspect, from target to target, but undoubtedly they will involve cell-based assays. It just may not be in all cases.”

Of course, Evotec OAI remains the linchpin in the Evotec family, as it maintains drug-discovery relationships with dozens of other pharmaceutical and drug-discovery customers worldwide. But the company has a vested interest in parlaying these collaborations into its own drug-development income, and, according to Ullman, Evotec definitely doesn’t want to be a one-trick pony.

“Quantification can certainly be difficult, but the nature of the evolution is to move the organization into product-like strategies,” Ullman said. “I think Evotec OAI [wants to] be a total solution provider, rather than a typical fee-for-service provider, because this is something we feel there is a strong need for in the pharmaceutical industry.”

—BB

 

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