Specialized manufacturing technology punches ticket to Protalix's value

Protalix BioTherapeutics developed Gaucher disease drug Elelyso, which it partnered on with Pfizer, but it may be the rare disease drug's unique plant cell-based manufacturing system that is making the small Israeli biotech potentially worth $1 billion.

Protalix ($PLX) said yesterday that it had turned to Citigroup to evaluate its future prospects, which might include a buyout, and of course everyone first thought of Pfizer ($PFE).

Steve Brozak, an analyst at WBB Securities, suggested that is a good bet. "Pfizer is interested in Protalix's manufacturing prowess," he told Bloomberg. He said that over the last two decades Protalix CEO David Aviezer has developed "technology that can change the way these very sophisticated products are made."

Citing the Israeli newspaper Calcalist, Bloomberg said Protalix is looking for $1 billion in a sale, but shareholders might settle for less.

Last year, Protalix and Pfizer's Elelyso became the first to win FDA approval for a drug made from a genetically engineered plant. It is made from carrot cells rather than the more complex mammalian cell-based system that Sanofi's ($SNY) Genzyme uses for its Gaucher drug Cerezyme. A story in Nature last year pointed out that biologics have been produced inside genetically engineered animal cells, yeast and bacteria for more than 20 years, but it is a complex, expensive process. It said some researchers believed that plant cells could provide a cheaper source because they require less precise conditions for growth.

The difficulties of the animal cell process became all too apparent in 2009 when viral contamination was found at a Genzyme plant in Allston, MA, where Cerezyme and other drugs were made. The plant was closed and shortages of the drug complicated its relationship with its Gaucher patients. Genzyme has since opened a new plant and resolved its issues.

- here's the Protalix release
- check out Bloomberg's article