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Former Ribopharma Founders Buy Roche's German RNA Drugs Site to Launch Services Business

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By Doug Macron

Just weeks after selling off its US-based RNA drug operations, Roche has found a buyer for its former European RNA therapeutics site, completing the company's exit from the oligonucleotide medicines field.

Taking the reins of the Kulmbach, Germany-based facility is Axolabs, a startup that aims to position itself as a provider of research services for nucleic acid drug development. Notably, the founders of Axolabs were also the founders of RNAi shop Ribopharma, which merged with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals in 2003 and became Roche's Center of Excellence for RNA Therapeutics when Alnylam sold it off four years later.

“We have a lot of experience in the field of nucleic acids therapeutics,” Roland Kreutzer, an Axolabs founder and managing director, told Gene Silencing News. “We were the first company in the world to start with RNAi therapeutics, and our team was expert in all regards of preclinical development of nucleic-acid therapeutics.”

With the addition of the know-how and operational enhancements derived from its years as a division of Roche, the new company aims to become a key partner for pharmaceutical and biotech firms that are interested in developing nucleic acid drugs but lack the resources to do so alone, he said.

Specifically, Axolabs plans to offer three main services, including high-throughput oligonucleotide synthesis up to gram scale. “We are not going to compete with small-scale synthesis shops,” Kreutzer said. “We are going to do large-scale synthesis, up to reference-standard material for clinical trials and so on.”

The company will also provide lead-identification services for oligonucleotide drugs, “starting from bioinformatics and selecting the right sequences, [up to] doing lead oligo identification” in vitro and in vivo, he said.

“The third pillar of our business … will provide pharmacology services,” as well as evaluations of various delivery technologies, both in culture and in animals, Kreutzer added. “We have a lot of experience with dozens of delivery technologies tested during our Roche time, so we really have a standardized procedure to identify suitable delivery technologies for different cell types.”

Axolabs will provide general consultancy services to small companies looking to carve out a niche in the oligonucleotide drugs field, as well as venture capital firms that need a particular investment evaluated, he said.

Through the deal with Roche, Axolabs has acquired the roughly 40,000-square-foot Kulmbach facility and all of its hardware. “Basically, we took over the whole facility with [all of] the equipment ... starting from the synthesis equipment to the analytical equipment,” Kreutzer said.

Not included, however, were the approximately 60 employees that worked for Roche Kulmbach. In addition to Kreutzer, Axolabs currently has just two other employees: Hans-Peter Vornlocher, who is head of research, and CFO Andreas Bossko. Both have been with the company since the Ribopharma days.

“All employees in Roche Kulmbach were laid off September 30,” Kreutzer noted. “The plan is to re-hire some of the former employees and start over again as a service business.

“Unfortunately, we will not be able to make every [one of them] … an offer,” he added. Axolabs hopes to add up to 20 employees by the end of 2012, but this figure will depend on the company's success obtaining customers.

Kreutzer is optimistic, though, that Axolabs will be able to meet its goals.

“We've already received several letters of intent from many different parties from pharma … as well as the biotech industry” and academia. The interest is quite high … and widespread. I think we can acquire customers relatively soon.”

Also absent from the Roche transaction was any intellectual property, which Axolabs will require if it decides to re-enter the therapeutics development game down the road.

When Roche first threw its hat into the RNA drug ring, it paid Alnylam $274 million upfront for non-exclusive access to that company's RNAi drug IP, in addition to the $15 million it cost for the Kulmbach site. Around a year later, it paid $125 million to buy Madison, Wis.-based Mirus Bio and the IP related to that company's polymer-based dynamic polyconjugate delivery technology.

After deciding last year to exit the RNA therapeutics field (GSN 11/18/2010), Roche had hoped to find a single buyer for both the Madison and Kulmbach sites, as well as all related assets, according to Kreutzer.

When that did not happen, the company assigned all RNA drug IP to the Madison facility, which it recently sold to Arrowhead Research (GSN 10/27/2011).

As such, Axolabs plans to “generate new IP in this field or to in-license some required IP” in order to jumpstart any drug-development programs it may initiate, he said. Still, this is not something the firm plans to do in the near term, he added.


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