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J&J’s Innovation Center Lands First Four Corporate Alliances

By Nuala Moran
Staff Writer

LONDON – The first corporate deals have been completed by the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Center in London, six months after it was set up in March.

The center is one of four that the pharma company is establishing with the aim of making it easier for biotechs and academics to engage with Johnson & Johnson, thus allowing it to get faster access to early stage research.

In addition to London, innovation centers will operate in Menlo Park, Calif., Boston and Shanghai, each with a team of business, science and transaction experts.

One of the agreements announced last week, with cancer vaccine specialist Dcprime NV, indicated success in both objectives, with Johnson & Johnson becoming the first big pharma to make a move into dendritic cell technology, and Leiden, Netherlands-based Dcprime finding that making a connection with Johnson & Johnson via the London innovation center was much easier than previous attempts to attract pharma interest.

“It worked well for us. We see on a regular basis that it is hard to find the right people within an organization, who are knowledgeable about the field and will do the legwork with colleagues to see if there is an interest or not,” Marcel Zwaal, CEO of Dcprime, told BioWorld International.

It was a similar experience for Effimune SA, which out-licensed its lead product, FR104, an antibody fragment against CD28 for the treatment of autoimmune diseases and organ transplant rejection. “The London innovation center [has a] project team of experts who could rapidly interact,” said Bernard Vanhove, co-inventor of FR104 and Effimune’s senior scientific adviser. A dedicated team from the London center carried out due diligence at Effimune’s facility in Nantes, France.

The biotech had made approaches to potential partners, but, Vanhove said, “it’s a major hurdle to reach the right person; other pharma companies were highly interested, but they were not organized internally. The London Innovation Center, on the other hand, has autonomy,” he told BioWorld International. The expert team of assessors from the center can connect with Johnson & Johnson therapy areas to ensure someone in-house will be interested in taking on programs that are in-licensed.

In addition to the Dcprime and Effimune agreements, Johnson & Johnson sealed two further deals last week, with its Netherlands-based vaccines arm Crucell NV signing with RNA specialist Curevac GmbH, of Tubingen, Germany, for the development of an mRNA respiratory infection vaccine based on antigens to be supplied by Crucell; and Johnson & Johnson Development Corp. taking part in the $42 million extension to the Series B funding of antibody specialist Merus BV, of Utrecht, the Netherlands.

All four deals were announced at the official opening of the London Innovation Center last week. In May the center announced a collaboration with three Belgian academic institutions to carry out research to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

The value of the Effimune agreement was not disclosed, but Vanhove said Johnson & Johnson “is engaged for a large amount of money that will get the product to market.”

FR104 emerged from research carried out at the government-funded Center for Research in Transplantation and Immunology in Nantes, and was originally tested in kidney transplant rejection. However, the pegylated CD28 inhibitor’s ability to promote immune tolerance also is relevant to autoimmune diseases, and Johnson & Johnson initially will develop the product in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). “We’re not saying it will only be developed in RA, but that’s the start,” Vanhove said.

Under the terms of the agreement, Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Biotech Inc. has taken an exclusive license to FR104 and will make milestone payments and royalties on any products that reach market. Vanhove said the program is ready to enter the clinic in the next few months, with Effimune staying in charge of development for now, backed by access to finance and manpower from Janssen.

For Dcprime, the tie-up with Johnson & Johnson is its first major corporate deal. “There’s a lot interest in cancer vaccines at the moment and this is working to our advantage, but the whole dendritic cell area is still considered to be risky. As soon as you drop the word, people shut down and don’t listen,” Zwaal said.

“Our vaccines are based on dendritic cells but they are standardized products, available of the shelf. Johnson & Johnson is the first big pharma to get that,” Zwaal said. n