West Coast Editor

Ambit Biosciences Inc.'s super-multi-tasking approach to kinase screening bagged the company deals with three of pharma's top players - Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., GlaxoSmithKline plc and Pfizer Inc.

The deals with New York-based Bristol-Myers and GSK, of London, are similar insofar as both involve using Ambit's kinase platform - which consists of a fast-expanding panel of more than 170 assays - to profile target specificity for compounds.

"We have assays we haven't added to the panel yet," said Scott Salka, CEO of San Diego-based Ambit. "We'll easily attain 250 in the high-throughput format by the middle of the year."

With Pfizer, of New York, privately held Ambit will use its Reverse Screening methodology, which screens small molecules across a large fraction of all human proteins, to identify and characterize targets of Pfizer compounds and figure out mechanisms of action.

"We're taking some molecules they've identified that exert interesting effects in assays," Salka explained. "In one sense, it's a more specific deal around a particular set of compounds. With GSK, BMS and [an earlier deal with F. Hoffman-La Roche Ltd.], we may be getting many, many compounds from them over a multiyear period, and assaying them against a whole panel of kinases."

Ambit's typical turnaround, he said, "is a matter of two or three days, from receipt of compounds to delivery of data. We do more assays at a lower cost, faster than anybody."

No financial terms of any of the deals were disclosed.

Salka acknowledged that Ambit had been rather quiet for about two years until last summer, when it made public a screening deal for small-molecule kinase inhibitors with Roche, of Basel, Switzerland, at the same time closing the first round of a Series C financing to raise more than $21 million. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 27, 2004.)

"We were kind of lying low, staying under the radar, because we were engaged in the very difficult work of taking an idea hatched in academia and converting that into a commercially attractive platform technology," he told BioWorld Today. "That takes some time."

Meanwhile, Ambit without fanfare had undertaken pilot programs with pharma companies, including GSK.

"That's the longest-running one," he said. "They came in when the technology was at its most nascent," in January 2003. At the time, the assay panel included only about 30, Salka said. Ambit opted not to make public the pilot programs.

"That can work against you," Salka noted. "The technology may work as advertised, and then for completely strategic reasons [the pharma company] could opt not to expand it into a full blown deal. Then you have to convince people that's why it happened, not that your technology didn't work."

Although Ambit operates in a space similar to Invitrogen Corp., of Carlsbad, Calif. (which this month signed an agreement to buy South San Francisco-based Zymed Laboratories Inc. for $60 million) and the Upstate Group Inc., of Charlottesville, Va. (acquired last fall by Atlanta-based Serologicals Corp.), Salka's firm isn't limiting itself to fee-for-service work, nor is it looking for a buyout.

"We've had a couple of opportunities to sell the platform to pharma companies," he said. "But the real value is in applying this technology platform to the creation of a robust pipeline."

The deals are strategic, he added, and designed to get Ambit into drug development.

"We already are," he said, pointing to a small-molecule neuroprotectant for the treatment of stroke and other central nervous system disorders that is expected to enter the clinic in late 2005. Small-molecule kinase-inhibitors for cancer will begin testing in 2006.

"For our most advanced kinase inhibitor program, we expect to file an [investigational new drug application] within the next four quarters," he said. The compound is "quite advanced, potent, specific, and works well in animal models. We're marching down that path."

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