Roche just dropped a first-generation antibody-based treatment preventing cancer cells from proliferating. Interestingly enough, the partner of the collaboration, Wilex‘ subsidiary Heidelberg Pharma, stated the research “progressed well, on schedule, and in a mutually satisfactory manner”. What happened?

Heidelberg Pharma is a German company that discovers new drugs using its platform technology for antibody drug conjugates. To use it, Roche had entered a collaboration in 2013. The idea was to connect several antibodies from Roche’s pipeline to α-Amanitin. The latter is a peptide that naturally occurrs in the green Death Cap mushroom and potentially inhibits the biosynthesis of RNA. A feature, that could be used against proliferating tumor cells. Indeed, testings have shown strong anti-tumour activity in several preclinical tumour models.

One year after the first signing, everything still seemed to work out well between the two companies. Roche expanded the arrangement for the further development and promised a €52M upfront payment. The collaboration backed Heidelberg Pharma’s finances. In the first half of 2015, Wilex generated €2.3M, which represented a 35% increase compared to the previous year. More than 50% (€1.3M) came from sales revenues, among others from the agreement with Roche. As bad as it is, the end of the collaboration caused the German company’s stock to crash and it had to revise its financial outlook for 2015 to a reduced cash reach.

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Wilex’ stock price crashed after the announcement of Roche leaving. Source: Onvista

But why is Roche leaving?

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Hyam Levitsky, Roche’s Head of Cancer Immunology

Cancer treatments definitely occupy a crucial place in Roche’s pipeline. However, within this field, the company want to give more value to certain types of treatments in the future, which leads it to reshuffle its pipeline. On its website, Roche’s Head of Cancer Immunology Experimental Medicine, Hyam Levitsky, raises the question: “Do we ever get rid of every cancer cell and what do we mean by a cure?”. His answer promotes the approach of immunotherapy: “In many cases what for all the world looks like a cure may simply be re-establishing the correct equilibrium between the cancer and the immune system”.

Besides Wilex, Molecular Partners came out on the short end this months, when Roche walked away from a cancer treatment with antibody-like molecules, that could have brought Molecular Partners $1B.

And there are also winners. Yesterday, the American company Clovis closed a deal with Roche to combine one of their drugs with one of Roche’s immunotherapy. Results of the latter showed 53% decreased risk of death in cancer patients when compared to standard chemotherapy – which is quite impressing. This may tipped the balance of Roche, “the worlds largest biotech company” to leave classical treatments behind to give place to immunotherapy.

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