Besides the promising colon cancer drug panitumumab, Amgen Inc. will get something much easier to pronounce in its $2.2 billion purchase of Abgenix Inc.

Mice actually, a special line of genetically altered mice that have been in high demand because they now have human immune systems. As a result, antibodies can be grown in the mice and then used in humans, with less risk of rejection.

Amgen Chief Executive Kevin Sharer told analysts during a Dec. 14 conference call that the Thousand Oaks-based biotech giant was still evaluating what's being called Abgenix's XenoMouse technology. "We know there are customers who depend on that platform and we are mindful of that and respectful of it and we want to make sure that we deliver properly," Sharer said.

Might Amgen hoard the developing technology, making business tougher for its competitors?

"There are several places people can go now, but clearly taking one of the big players out of the market is going to have an impact," said RBC Capital Markets analyst Jason Kantor, adding that reduced access to XenoMouse could present an upside for smaller Abgenix competitors.

Amgen may decide to honor Abgenix's existing partnerships with about a dozen companies. Currently, those partners range from established drug giants such as Pfizer Inc. and AstraZeneca PLC, to small development firms such as Santa Monica-based Agensys Inc., whose chief scientific officer, Aya Jakobovits, led the Abgenix team that produced XenoMouse in mid-1990's.

Unlike many young development companies with no products on the market, Abgenix has been able to supplement its funding with a small but steady royalty stream from XenoMouse the product of years of intricate gene splicing and animal cross-breeding.

"It's like a gold mine," said Jakobovits, whose new company has a XenoMouse-developed prostate cancer drug in Phase One clinical trials with Merck and Co. Inc. as a co-development partner. "It's a well-proven technology. If you have good targets, you can produce very good antibodies with it."

Agensys' XenoMouse license is up for renewal in August, but Jakobovits hopes that small companies like hers, which often serve as farm teams for big pharmaceutical companies, will still have access to the technology.

Detecting cells
Some Abgenix shareholders filed a class action suit last month, contending that Amgen's offer of $22.50 a share is too little, given the value of the company's experimental drug portfolio and intellectual property. Fremont-based Abgenix said in a regulatory filing that the suit was without merit.


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