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High-profile oncology partnership
HORSHAM, Pa.—Janssen Biotech Inc., one of the Janssen Pharmaceutical companies of Johnson & Johnson, has announced a partnership with Araxes Pharma LLC, an affiliate of Wellspring Biosciences LLC, to engage in developing novel therapeutics for cancer treatment.
Under the terms of the partnership, Araxes will receive an unspecified upfront payment and research and development funding, and will begin early drug development of novel agents against a certain oncology target. Araxes will develop these novel therapeutics through Phase I to clinical proof of concept.
"We've set the bar there, because at that point, you've demonstrated patient benefit," says Troy Wilson, president, CEO and co-founder at Wellspring Biosciences.
Beyond that stage, Janssen Biotech will assume sole responsibility for seeing development through to completion and worldwide commercialization of products arising under the agreement. Araxes is then eligible to receive milestone payments as well as tiered royalties on the worldwide sales of products developed and commercialized under the agreement.
Although the exact drug target being pursued has not been disclosed, the founders of Wellspring Biosciences have a recent track record of success in small-molecule drug discovery, especially related to oncology and inflammation. Four of Wellspring's five founders previously co-founded Intellikine, a company that discovered three drug candidates against the PI3K/mTOR pathway before being acquired by Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Company, in January 2012.
"I can say that they are pursuing a novel, high-quality small molecule," says Kellie McLaughlin, oncology therapeutics area communications lead for Johnson & Johnson.
If the history of the scientific team responsible for the early drug development is any indication as to the target, their successes during their time at Intellikine are worth noting. The lion's share of their work pertained to small molecules, as well as chemical matter and crystal structure. Of the three drug candidates the team developed against the PI3K/mTOR pathway at Intellikine, the first was a PI3Kdelta/gamma inhibitor, which was licensed to Infinity Pharmaceuticals in July 2010 in a deal valued up to $489 million.
The other two drug candidates—a TORC1/2 inhibitor and a PI3Kalpha inhibitor—were advanced into human clinical trials before the January 2012 acquisition by Millennium Pharmaceuticals.
"We hope to achieve a clinical-stage asset suitable for Janssen to continue to develop," says McLaughlin. "Ultimately, we hope that we end up with a new drug on the market that is filling unmet needs and benefiting patients."
"Janssen has shown that they know what to do with an agent that has shown proof of concept—they're very good at that," says Wilson.
Through their experiences at Intellikine, the Wellspring founders had forged working relationships with many major research groups. One such contact was Peter Lebowitz, an oncology research and development specialist who now oversees Janssen's oncology portfolio. When the Wellspring team reached out to offer to work with Janssen on this new project, working together seemed a natural fit.
"I have great respect and gratitude for Janssen for giving us the opportunity to engage in this high-profile partnership," says Wilson. "We would love nothing more than for Janssen to look back in five years' time and say, 'this was one of the best collaborations we ever did.'"
Wellspring Biosciences is a privately held organization funded by its founders without any venture investment. It is organized as a drug discovery incubator with its scientific programs organized into separate, asset-centered affiliates, of which Araxes Pharma LLC is the first to be publicly announced.
"Janssen has a philosophy of looking for the best science, wherever it is," says McLaughlin. "We're looking forward to working with Araxes in this new partnership."