Business & Tech

Cambridge biotech signs deal to take on ‘superbugs’

“We’re very excited,’’ said Laurence Reid, chief executive of Warp Drive. “There’s an ongoing and growing global crisis in treating drug-resistant pathogens all over the world.”
“We’re very excited,’’ said Laurence Reid, chief executive of Warp Drive. “There’s an ongoing and growing global crisis in treating drug-resistant pathogens all over the world.”

A Cambridge biotech says it has signed a deal with Swiss drug giant Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. to develop new medicines to combat drug-resistant “superbugs,” three weeks after the World Health Organization said the world is running out of effective antibiotics.

Warp Drive Bio has been working for over a year to identify more than 100 new classes of potential antibiotics, using what it calls “genome mining platform” — including a vast database of genetic material that corresponds to more than 135,000 bacterial strains.

Under the agreement with Roche, Warp Drive will receive up to $87 million based on the results of its research before clinical trials start, and as much as $300 million more if it reaches certain clinical, regulatory, and sales goals on products licensed to Roche.

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“We’re very excited,’’ said Laurence Reid, chief executive of Warp Drive. “There’s an ongoing and growing global crisis in treating drug-resistant pathogens all over the world.”

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“Right now, the bacteria are ahead of us, and we need to be investing much more significantly to find new ways to combat these infectious diseases.”

The deal is the second between Warp Drive and a pharmaceutical giant. The company was founded in 2012 in partnership with the French multinational drug company Sanofi and with financing from the venture capital firms Third Rock Ventures and Greylock Partners. Warp Drive, which is also developing cancer treatments, is eligible to receive more than $750 million from Sanofi under the earlier agreement.

The timing of the deal with Roche is auspicious. On Sept. 20, WHO released a report that said the emergence of superbugs was a global health emergency. There are more than 50 medicines in the clinical pipeline around the world aimed at addressing the problem, but most are modifications of existing antibiotics and only short-term solutions.

Drug-resistant tuberculosis kills about 250,000 people worldwide, according to WHO. The organization identified 12 classes of pathogens — some of them causing common infections such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections — that are increasingly resistant to current antibiotics.

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“There is an urgent need for more investment in research and development for antibiotic-resistant infections including TB; otherwise we will be forced back to a time when people feared common infections and risked their lives from minor surgery,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO.

The US Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than 2 million patients in the United States are affected by drug-resistant infections each year, resulting in at least 23,000 deaths and health care costs of up to $20 billion. Worldwide, 700,000 patients die each year from superbugs, according to the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.

The spread of such infections in hospitals is imperiling life-saving medical procedures, including surgery and chemotherapy.

Following the discovery of penicillin in 1928, there was a flurry of discovery of new antibiotics in the 1950s and 1960s, including the approval of several distinct classes of antibiotics, according to the recent WHO report.

Since then, however, few new classes have been successfully brought to market, in part because antibiotics are taken for a brief period and come with relatively low prices. That doesn’t make them big money-makers for drug companies, lessening their interest in long-term research on antibiotics.

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If Warp Drive is able to bring a new class of antibiotics to market, they would likely carry much higher price tags.

The costs “have to reflect the medical value of what we’re going to be bringing,” Reid said. He likened innovative antibiotics to high-tech — and high-priced — drugs that treat rare diseases.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.