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It's All About the Drugs


By John Russell

March 14, 2006 | I’ve occasionally portrayed Organon as the poster child of biopharma companies that are enthusiastic about using systems biology tools and willing to share the risk and reward with tool providers. And it is. Organon’s co-development deal with model-maker Entelos may be the only one of its kind in that it provides Entelos with co-marketing rights for compounds emerging from the collaboration.

But a conversation with David Nicholson, Organon’s executive VP for global research and development, is a stark reminder that drug companies want drugs and don’t lust for this or that tool even if their scientists are sometimes giddy over new technologies.

“I’m a big believer in shots on goal,” says Nicholson, “Anything that helps prioritize those compounds helps, of course. We shouldn’t overemphasize the importance of modeling. The major focus within Organon is on pharmacology and medicinal chemistry. That’s what we want to do. That’s what we want to be good at. But of course, we need a whole raft of supporting technologies to underpin our efforts.”

Pressure on Organon and Nicholson to deliver not just shots but goals will soon increase. The company announced plans for an IPO spinout from its Dutch parent, Akzel Nobel. The new company, Organon Biosciences, will focus on pharmaceuticals. Akzel will retain the chemicals and coatings business. In preparation for the changes, some executive shuffling has taken place. Nicholson was elevated from senior to executive VP and development was added to his responsibilities. Toon Wilderbeek, now president, will become CEO.

Timing of the IPO will depend on Organon pipeline developments, particularly Phase III data for asenapine, and, of course, on IPO market conditions. Best known for reproductive medicine and more recently for CNS initiatives, Organon is expanding into immunology. Indeed, the Entelos deal is a rheumatoid arthritis program focused on target prioritization and biomarker identification.

Says Nicholson, “We believe in the technology; otherwise, we wouldn’t have entered into the deal with Entelos. But it’s fair to say so far the technology has not proven itself in the sense that we have not yet selected targets from this model, which have proven to be effective in the clinic.” He quickly adds the working relationship with Entelos is rock solid and has been from the start. The proof, however, will be in what emerges from the pipeline.

Working with the Outside World
Organon has long favored external collaborations. “We have a well-defined research strategy where we know in any calendar year, over any period of time on a rolling basis, what we want to achieve, including technologies we need to add to our present portfolio,” says Nicholson.

Interestingly, Entelos was one of few ad hoc deals to arise. Computational tools had been used in chemistry for years. “There was a logical extension to try to do it in biology. One of the major potential outputs for the Entelos technology, which I was always most interested in, is in silico validated biomarkers,” he says.

Driving the deal was Nicholson’s fierce pursuit of drugs: “I want to have as many targets being evaluated at one point in time as possible and to have as many compounds as possible moving through development.” He cut Organon’s costs and risk by giving Entelos a major stake in the results. He doesn’t care what tool or approach delivers the drugs so long as it delivers.

Consider Nicholson’s wariness about bringing modeling technology in-house: “The jury is still somewhat out on that. If it fulfills its promise then it would be interesting to bring it in-house, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm from many of our scientists to do that. But I do think we need to validate the technology in this present collaboration before we make any decision on that.”

Currently, there’s a modest discussion among systems biology technology providers over whether positioning themselves as science collaborators instead of tool providers will increase their success. Such worries are premature. Take a lesson from Nicholson. What’s needed now is a clear result.

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