Senesco Technologies said today it agreed to merge with Fabrus, a Pfizer-incubated developer of an antibody discovery and development platform whose backers include Forbes-ranked billionaire Phillip Frost, M.D., and his Opko Health. The value of the deal was not disclosed.

Senesco said Fabrus’ antibodies would complement its eIF5A gene regulatory platform, designed to kill cancer cells by directing nanoparticle-based therapeutics to cells of interest.

“We are excited by the opportunity to expand our R&D portfolio with high-quality technology and look forward to potentially advancing a series of monoclonal antibody-based therapeutic candidates that will address multiple diseases,” Leslie J. Browne, Ph.D., Senesco’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

Applying the discovery that the genetic pathway for cell growth control is common to both plants and humans, Senesco is in clinical phases of testing its eukaryotic translation initiation Factor 5A (eIF5A) gene regulation technology, which has demonstrated the ability to kill cancer cells while protecting healthy cells from premature death in disease models.

Senesco is now recruiting patients for a Phase Ib/IIa trial assessing how well its product candidate SNS01-T is tolerated by relapsed or refractory multiple myeloma, mantle cell lymphoma, or diffuse large B cell lymphoma patients when given by intravenous infusion at various doses. Trial sites include the Mayo Clinic and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. SNS01-T is designed to treat B-cell cancers, which include multiple myeloma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and non-Hodgkin’s B-cell lymphomas.

Earlier this month, Senesco said it planned to close on a securities purchase agreement with certain investors to raise up to $25.2 million in gross proceeds—an immediate $5.4 million, with possibilities of receiving up to an additional $12.6 million in the next six months and another $7.2 million within the next three years, both through exercise of warrants. The stock sale is expected to yield $5.25 million in net proceeds that Senesco said it will use for working capital, research and development, and general corporate purposes.

Fabrus specializes in identifying and developing functional therapeutic monoclonal antibodies to challenging cell surface targets such as GPCRs and ion channels. Fabrus has developed a discovery system designed to allow high-throughput biologic lead identification directly on the cell surface, enabling drug discovery against difficult transmembrane targets. The company has also developed scaffolds for biologic therapeutics, including ultralong CDR3 antibodies and the chimerasome nanocage.

“We believe this merger will significantly help speed Fabrus’ trajectory as we continue our proprietary antibody discovery activities,” Vaughn Smider, M.D., Ph.D., Fabrus’ founder and president, said in a statement.

“We are enthusiastic about the enhanced growth opportunities that this merger with Senesco represents, especially the development of advanced nanoparticle drugs that can be targeted with our antibody and nanocage systems,” added Dr. Smider, who is also an assistant professor of molecular biology at The Scripps Research Institute.

Fabrus was the first occupant of Pfizer’s research and development site in La Jolla, CA, following its creation in 2007. Three years later, Fabrus won $2 million in funding from investors that included Dr. Frost’s Frost Gamma Investments Trust; Opko Health, of which Dr. Frost is chairman and CEO; and Hsu Gamma Investment. At the time, Opko took a 13% stake in Fabrus, while Dr. Frost and Hsu Gamma general partner Jane Hsiao took board seats.

Dr. Frost is also chairman of generics giant Teva Pharmaceutical Industries.

Fabrus has two collaborations in place with undisclosed “large pharma and biotech companies” to discover antibodies to their targets, and has an internal pipeline that includes next-generation antibodies targeting renal cell carcinoma and inflammation. The company’s technology has been successful in generating antibodies against very difficult, therapeutically important cell surface receptors and ion channels.

Under their merger, present shareholders of Senesco and Fabrus will each receive approximately 50% of the combined companies. Fabrus will merge with a wholly owned subsidiary of Senesco, while Senesco shareholders will be entitled to hold their existing securities.

Senesco and Fabrus said they signed a nonbinding letter of intent, and expect to sign a definitive agreement in early 2014 and close at the same time or soon after. Once an agreement is executed, additional details of the transaction will be disclosed, the companies added.

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