Roche ties a $387M knot with Warp Drive Bio in collaboration spotlighting new classes of antibiotics

Four years after Roche signaled its return to the antibiotics field, with mixed results, the pharma giant is turning to the genomic drawing board at Warp Drive Bio to see if it can use the biotech’s tech platform to hunt down some completely new classes of antibiotics.

Laurence Reid

The deal with Roche’s big pRED organization in Basel — under John Reed — comes with an upfront and preclinical milestones of $87 million, with another $300 million on the line for the rest of the development and potential sales milestones under the deal.

In return Warp Drive will do for Roche what it’s been doing for Sanofi and other big partners, using a platform tech originally devised by Harvard scientist and serial biotech entrepreneur Greg Verdine in searching for clues produced by Mother Nature to come up with new breeds of antibiotics that can combat the increasingly drug-resistant targets they’re going after.

“The work with Roche is really focused on discovering truly novel classes of antibiotics,” says Laurence Reid, who took Verdine’s place as CEO a couple of years ago. And that hasn’t been done in 30 years, since daptomycin was discovered and developed.

The genome mining platform at Warp Drive “includes a genomic database of sequences of bacteria that live in the soil,” says Reid. Using bioinformatics tech, they can “search in sequences for signatures of genes that encode the biosynthetic machinery for novel compounds.”

“We hunt for clusters that we predict will encode novel compounds,” he adds, searching for potential antibiotics and then modifying them. The hunt is on for new mechanisms of action and new chemical structures against known targets.

Roche and virtually every other Big Pharma player once active in antibiotics abandoned the field years ago, turned off by the thin margins and poor financial prospects for a niche now dominated by cheap generics. A variety of small biotechs have been fielding non-inferior antibiotics that can step in for drug-resistant cases, and as the current crop gradually plays out with ever-weakening results, the prospect that novel antibiotics can come along could prove much more attractive for major developers.

Roche should have plenty of time to see those economics work out in this discovery deal.

Karen Bush, Indiana University

It’s no easy quest. The pharma giant’s pRED R&D group — as distinct from the gRED arm at Genentech — jumped back into antibiotics with a collaboration with Polyphor, but dropped it two years later. Last April, Polyphor nailed down a $40 million round to fund late-stage work on Murepavadin (POL7080), an antibiotic aimed at guarding against infections in the airways of cystic fibrosis patients.

Said Indiana University Professor Karen Bush:
With the innovative platform developed by Warp Drive, there is the potential to discover novel natural product antibiotics, historically hidden within microbes. These previously untapped antibiotic classes may play a key role in the future strategy to combat antimicrobial resistance.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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