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Is Pfizer After Biocon’s Insulin Portfolio?

The Economic Times is reporting that Pfizer is interested in buying the U.S. and European rights to Bangalore-based Biocon’s insulin franchise in a deal that would include a $200 million upfront payment. Rumors that Pfizer would buy Biocon’s oral insulin product emerged in August, but the specifics on a possible pricetag have caused shares of the Indian company to rise over 8%.

Biocon’s diabetes pill is in Phase III trials in India and Phase I studies in the U.S. The potential for an oral insulin product is vast, but so is the risk—getting the right balance in insulin administration is a tricky business. (Click here for my colleague Ann Thayer’s take on efforts to make inhaled or oral insulin products.) One has to wonder how much money Pfizer would be willing to pay for another alternative insulin after the colossal failure of the inhaled insulin Exubera. Low demand for the treatment prompted Pfizer to pull it from the market a year after its approval, costing the company some $5 billion after licensing fees, R&D costs, and write-offs.

To be fair, an insulin pill has been the holy grail for diabetes researchers for some time. It would be less onerous than daily injections and more discrete than the unwieldy to downright ridiculous inhaled insulin instruments.

Some background on Biocon’s technology: Biocon’s oral insulin program came from its 2006 acquisition of Nobex, a N.C.-based biotech that developed a way to make a pill form of biologics, which normally need to be given as an injection or IV infusion. Nobex used what it called “PegAlkylation” technology, which links a polyethylene glycol chain (those same PEGs used to improve the delivery of interferons and other large molecules) and an alkyl to a biologic like a protein or peptide. The design creates a molecule with a water-soluble and fat-soluble end that can travel through the myriad environments inside our bodies. Nobex claimed its oral insulin drug effectively reproduces the “first-phase spike,” or the large hit of insulin the pancreas puts out after a meal, a challenge for injectable and inhaled forms of insulin.

Pfizer wouldn’t be the first big pharma to invest in an insulin pill. GlaxoSmithKline licensed an earlier version of Nobex’s oral insulin drug, but gave back the rights in late 2003. Nobex abandoned worked on that molecule in favor of a newer and better one, which Biocon licensed in 2004, prior to its acquisition of Nobex.

Oral insulin aside, its worth noting that today’s ET story says the $200 million is for Biocon’s insulin portfolio, whereas earlier stories focused on Pfizer’s interest in the oral insulin program. European regulatory authorities recently gave the nod to allow Biocon to start Phase III trials of a biosimilar insulin, a product produced in yeast that Biocon already sells in India. Like several of its big pharma compatriots, Pfizer is making a big push into biosimilars, and was on the lookout for acquisitions that would beef up its portfolio of copycat biologics. One has to wonder whether the rumored deal would be for the whole enchilada, or just oral insulin. If the former is true, the $200 million starts to sound like a steal.

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