Classically Big Pharma has been focused on development small molecule drugs that can be readily made en masse, and whose chemistry is well understood. Biologics such as antibodies have also been gaining popularity, albeit at a slower rate. Stem cells are more difficult than biologics in terms of manufacturing, however, despite this, there has been some increasing interest by Big Pharma in this area in the last couple years. For example, in June 24th, 2008 Pfizer provided Series A funding for EyeCyte, a San Diego company dedicated to generating cell based treatments for diabetic retinopathy. A mega-deal between Osiris Therapeutics and Genzyme worth over a billion dollars was signed on Nov 4, 2008 for the rest of world rights for the mesenchymal stem cell products Prochymal and Chondrogen.
On August 7, 2009 Opexa and Novartis signed a $50 million deal involving a $4 million upfront payment for a pre-clinical stem cell technology. More recently, Pfizer signed a deal worth $111 million with Athersys involving development of the MultiStem product in the area of inflammatory bowel disease.
"Pfizer is committed to the development of new medicines that have the potential to fundamentally improve the quality of clinical care in areas of need. We are delighted to work with Athersys to develop MultiStem for inflammatory bowel disease," said Dr. Ruth McKernan, Head of Pfizer Regenerative Medicine. "This is an innovative new area and our collaboration with Athersys represents a cornerstone of Pfizer’s stem cell and regenerative medicine strategy."
Athersys is a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company that is developing both stem cell and non-stem cell based drugs. Its Regenerative medicine pipeline includes the use of MultiStem for acute myocardial infarction, bone marrow transplant support, and ischemic stroke. Its small molecule drug pipeline contains novel pharmaceuticals to treat indications such as obesity, as well as certain conditions that affect cognition, attention and wakefulness.
The MultiStem product is a mesenchymal-like stem cell that is capable of becoming numerous types of tissues including heart, brain, muscle, and blood vessels. As found for mesenchymal stem cells derived from other sources, the MultiStem product does not require matching with the recipient. This allows for cells to be used as "universal donor" or a "one size fits all" approach.
"We have been systematically evaluating potential partnering opportunities in multiple areas, and we believe that Pfizer represents the ideal partner for this program," said Dr. Gil Van Bokkelen, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at Athersys. "Their longstanding global leadership in development and commercialization of new medicines, focus on best-in-class therapies, and their growing commitment to regenerative medicine provide a great foundation for working together."