To the relief of millions of cancer patients, newer drugs called “antibody-drug conjugates” have shown great promise as new treatments for the most common forms of the disease. So great, in fact, that development of the products has made them a ripe business opportunity for drugmakers.
Global revenue from antibody-drug conjugates totaled nearly $6 billion in 2017, up 49 percent from the year before, according to FiercePharma, an industry trade publication. Last year, five different antibody-drug conjugates earned approval in the United States and Europe, including one that was designed to treat a rare form of leukemia called hematological malignancies.
Development of these new cancer drugs have been driven by an enormous wave of venture capital funding that has pumped money into the field, as well as by successful interactions between venture investors and the companies making the drugs. A 2016 report from the University of Oxford and the University of California, San Francisco, found that 2015 saw the most innovation per funding dollar going to earlier-stage biotech companies than at any time since the 1980s.
Those investments have made companies like San Diego-based OncoMed Pharmaceuticals, which received $86 million in Series B financing in 2018, a compelling acquisition target for pharmaceutical companies. OncoMed’s market capitalization is now $2.4 billion, making it a potent candidate for a cash-flush company that has a need for new products and a more conservative balance sheet than a biotech startup.
But the companies that create antibody-drug conjugates are also laboratories, at times working by themselves and often working in concert with other types of drugmaking ventures, such as biotechnology and academic companies, as well as specialists in bioprocessing and purification.
The collaborations described in a 2015 essay by Deborah Sandberg, who directs the public policy and policy analysis program at the University of Chicago, include “hotels” and “antibody processing centers” where multiple companies, scientists and others come together to convert non-cancerous cells into cancer cell-killing antibody drugs. This can take place in labs, on site at large biotechnology firms, or even at a website like eBay — a touch-screen system assigns buyers and sellers a “drug action value” (DOM) for each product offering, which reflects how much potential the drug might be able to cure a particular type of disease. By assigning an IV value to each lead product in the portfolio, the database lets scientists quickly check whether a product is highly effective in treating a particular type of disease, or whether it is a waste of money.