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Icagen Gets A New Name After Being Acquired By Pfizer

Icagen Gets A New Name After Being Acquired By Pfizer [the News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.]

From News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) (March 22, 2012)

March 22--DURHAM -- Icagen is operating under a new name: Neusentis.

The Durham biotechnology company became a wholly owned subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer when it was acquired for $56 million at the end of October, but it retained the Icagen brand until this week.

Now it is part of Neusentis, a Pfizer research-and-development unit focused on treatments for pain and sensory disorders.

The name change is largely symbolic, an indication of Icagen’s deeper integration into Pfizer, rather than having a major impact on how the Durham operation functions.

Since the acquisition, the Durham operation has been overseen by Ruth McKernan, Neusentis’ chief scientific officer. And former Icagen staffers have been collaborating with colleagues at Neusentis, which is based in the United Kingdom.

In an interview Wednesday at the company’s offices on Emperor Boulevard, McKernan said that, although she championed the Icagen acquisition within Pfizer, she left it up to Icagen staffers whether they wanted to change the name.

"It isn’t a light decision," she said. "Icagen is a very respected name. People know it stands for superb quality in one very unique area of science."

Views varied, but a majority of the 30-person staff supported a change.

"I walked around and asked people what they wanted to do," said Doug Krafte, an Icagen holdover who is now executive director of the Durham office. "They are very proud of the Icagen name ... but they really felt the integrated organization had a lot of potential. We are doing things now that we couldn’t have done before."

Three experimental drugs in clinical trials that originated at Icagen -- two for pain and one for epilepsy -- are being developed at Neusentis. But Neusentis scientists on both sides of the Atlantic are collaborating on all of the drugs in Neusentis’ pipeline.

Neusentis itself is a newcomer within Pfizer, created last year when the company restructured its research efforts so that they were "smaller, more entrepreneurial, biotech-style units," McKernan said. Neusentis has 150 workers after absorbing Icagen.

Pfizer is a major employer across the Triangle. It has 700 workers at its vaccine manufacturing plant in Sanford and 230 at its poultry health unit in Durham.

Pfizer was familiar with Icagen prior to the acquisition. The two companies have been collaborating on experimental pain medicines since 2007. Indeed, Pfizer would have owed Icagen hundreds of millions of dollars in milestone payments if its drugs succeeded in clinical trials, so buying the company was a less-expensive alternative.

CEO P. Kay Wagoner, who founded Icagen in 1992 and took it public in 2005, departed the business in conjunction with the sale.

Icagen’s scientific specialty is ion channels, which operate like switches that regulate the flow of molecules in the body.

Scientists are excited about research in this field because people with rare genetic defects in ion channels can be "incredibly sensitive to pain or unable to feel pain at all," said McKernan. "If we can block these channels, we can reduce pain."

Icagen had 40 employees in Durham when Pfizer announced last July that it was acquiring the business, but attrition and layoffs since then have whittled its staff to 30.

"Every scientist was retained and they have stayed," Krafte said.

McKernan said that the cross-Atlantic collaboration within Neusentis has accelerated the development of drugs that originated with Pfizer and those that got their start at Icagen, thanks to the different skills and knowledge of each group.

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Posted: March 2012