Biotech Firm Launched by Jonsson Cancer Center Scientists Acquired by Pharmaceutical Company

Cancer researcher hand touch test tubes in lab

A business success story has both UCLA and a team of enterprising UCLA scientists envisioning a brighter future for cancer research and patient care.

In 1996, a unique collaboration of leading researchers from UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, led by Dr. Arie Belldegrun, founded the biotechnology company Agensys Inc. and the company now stands to reap $537 million through an acquisition by Astellas Pharma Inc. The acquisition will make the firm one of the largest Los Angeles-based private biotech companies poised to tackle therapeutic, fully human monoclonal antibody oncology research and drug development.

According to Astellas, the acquisition will enable Agensys to become the cornerstone of the company's biologics efforts and will allow the Agensys team to accelerate its discovery and commercial efforts while working to achieve the vision of building a global leader in biologics and oncology.

Agensys, originally known as UroGenesys, was created with $8 million in seed money from private donors and "angel investors," many of whom were grateful patients of the UCLA physicians who had helped spur the development of novel gene-based therapies for prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men.

"As clinicians and scientists, we wanted to build on the discoveries made in our individual labs to help move cancer research forward from the bench to the bedside," said Belldegrun, founding chairman of Agensys, professor and chief of urologic oncology in the department of urology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and a researcher with UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center.

The other scientists who launched the firm include UCLA researchers Michael Carey, professor of biological chemistry; Jean DeKernion, a professor and chairman of the urology department; Owen Witte, professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics; Robert Reiter, a professor of urology; and former UCLA scientists Robert Figlin and Charles Sawyers.

The UCLA scientists worked with former president and chief executive officer of Teledyne Technologies, Dr. Donald B. Rice, who became chief executive officer of Agensys. They were joined in 1999 by Dr. Aya Jakobovits, who helped develop monoclonal antibody technology at the company. Today, Agensys specializes in the discovery of proprietary targets for a variety of cancer indications and in antibody product development, manufacturing and clinical testing.

Technology developed at UCLA using lines of patented Xenograft mice that can carry and grow human tumors has led to cutting-edge research and drug development for prostate, kidney, bladder and other urologic indications. According to Witte, who directs the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA and served as founding chairman of the Agensys scientific advisory board, the technology also has been applied for a variety of other types of cancer - including pancreatic, lung, colon, breast and ovarian cancers - which inspired the company's name change to Agensys in 2001.

"We are pleased that our faculty, in addition to regular duties pursuing research, patient care and teaching, were able to bond together and start this biotech company that is now well positioned to become a major player in Los Angeles and the world for drug development," DeKernion said.

UCLA was an initial partner in Agensys. Several patents - including those for the Xenograft line series (LAPC) and the prostate stem cell antigen (PSCA) tumor target developed by the UCLA scientific founders of Agensys - were licensed to the company from UCLA. Today, more than 300 patents have been generated from the LAPC tumor model, some of which have been licensed to pharmaceutical companies around the world.

In addition, the fundamental patent for PSCA, a cell surface marker overexpressed in prostate cancer patients, was also licensed and serves as the basis for the initial products in the Agensys pipeline. In a groundbreaking step for the university, UCLA took equity as partial consideration for this licensing agreement.

"The creation of Agensys exemplifies the creativity and drive of UCLA's faculty entrepreneurs," said Kathryn Atchison, UCLA vice provost for intellectual property and industry relations. "UCLA's premier scientists represent the new scientists of the 21st century. They act not only as scientists to create new knowledge, they also work as entrepreneurs to assure that breakthrough technology moves toward product development."

According to Belldegrun, the acquisition of Agensys by Astellas Pharma is a promising example of what can be done when entrepreneurial efforts by UCLA medical faculty are encouraged to blossom.

Venture capital investments in Agensys have come from premier groups such as Orbimed Associates, Alta Partners, Bear Sterns Health Innoventures, JAFCO, H&Q Healthcare, Duquesne Capital Management Co. and HBM Bioventures.