Friday, March 15, 2013

Deals Of The Week: Exit From Ambit Tie-Up Just A Blip In Astellas’ Oncology Aspirations

Despite ambitions to become the “global category leader in oncology,” Astellas Pharma has decided to pull the plug on a promising collaboration in acute myeloid leukemia with privately held Ambit Biosciences, potentially throwing a wrench into the machinery of the latter’s upcoming initial public offering. On March 12, Ambit announced that Astellas has exercised its right to opt out of the partnership, effective Sept. 3, at which time all program rights revert to the biotech.

The two firms have been partnered since 2009 to co-develop FMS-like tyrosine kinase-3 (FLT3) inhibitors for cancer, with a focus on lead compound quizartinib (AC220), which showed off promising Phase II data at the American Society of Hematology meeting this past December. Quizartinib, seen as a potential competitor to Novartis' Gleevec (imatinib), was discovered by Ambit using its KINOMEscan high-throughput small-molecule kinase screening engine, since off-loaded to DiscoveRx Corp. in a 2010 transaction so that Ambit could focus on drug development.

Astellas paid $40 million upfront in 2009 for worldwide rights to quizartinib and other FLT3 inhibitors for cancer and non-cancer indications, although Ambit retained a right to co-promote all deal-related compounds. The Japanese pharma also was on the line for up to $350 million in pre-commercialization milestones as well as sales milestones and tiered double-digit royalties. The partners were sharing quizartinib development costs in the U.S. and Europe while Astellas was to shoulder rest-of-world costs.

Concurrent with the deal, Ambit has been trying to go public. It first announced plans to file an initial public offering in November 2010, but withdrew in June 2011 citing the ubiquitous unfavorable market conditions.  However, in February, it announced new plans for an IPO.

Ambit had only $14.5 million in cash on hand at the end of 2012, nowhere near enough to advance an AML candidate by itself, but recently raised $25 million in the first tranche of a planned $50 million Series B financing. In the meantime, it is working on a companion diagnostic to identify suitable patients for the drug with Novartis unit Genoptix.

FLT3 inhibitors are not a crowded class at present. Novartis has midostaurin (PKC412) in a Phase III trial (RATIFY) in newly diagnosed AML patients with FLT3 mutations, as well as in Phase II in aggressive systemic mastocytosis. Bayer’s multi-kinase inhibitor Nexavar (sorafenib) for renal and liver cancer and Pfizer’s Sutent (sunitinib) for renal and pancreatic cancer are multiple kinase inhibitors that affect FLT3.

Teva has lestaurtinib (CEP-701), also a multi-kinase inhibitor that has been investigated in relapsed AML, under its 2011 buyout of Cephalon. However, the compound was not referenced in a December 2012 pipeline review for investors by the Israeli pharma.

Meanwhile, China’s SBIO licensed worldwide rights to multi-kinase inhibitor SB1317 to Tragara Pharmaceuticals in 2009 in a deal that could bring SBIO a combined $112.5 million in upfront cash and milestones. Now known as TG02, the compound is being developed in multiple myeloma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and acute leukemia by San Diego-based Tragara.

In a release to announce the split, Astellas President and CEO Yoshihiko Hatanaka said the decision was made for strategic reasons. “We remain committed to the field of oncology as a major area of focus for the company,” he added. Indeed, in an interview with “The Pink Sheet” a little over one year ago, the exec talked up Astellas’ prospects in cancer, thanks in part to intellectual property obtained in its 2010 buyout of OSI Pharmaceuticals.

That transaction brought Astellas the non-small cell lung cancer drug Tarceva (erlotinib), for which Astellas continues to seek label expansions, including first-line lung cancer. In addition, with Medivation, Astellas obtained FDA approval last September for Xtandi (enzalutamide) in prostate cancer, a setting where it is expected to compete with Johnson & Johnson’s Zytiga (abiraterone).

Another big oncology opportunity for Astellas is renal cell carcinoma candidate tivozanib, partnered with Aveo Pharmaceuticals. FDA’s Oncology Drugs Advisory Committee is scheduled to review the compound, which showed an unfavorable survival trend in a pivotal study, on May 2. An oral tyrosine kinase inhibitor, tivozanib previously out-performed Nexavar in a head-to-head study measuring progression-free survival in RCC patients.

In the meantime, DOTW fanatics await Ambit’s next move, be it the pricing of its IPO or a search for a new development partner for quizartinib. But while we wait, we also can mull this new collection of

Shire/Premacure: Shire’s acquisition of Swedish biotech Premacure announced March 12 is the first deal the specialty pharma has completed since Flemming Ornskov was appointed CEO designate. The former Bayer executive began working at Shire in January as part of a phased-in succession plan to replace CEO Angus Russell, who will leave the company at the end of April. Shire has said it will continue its M&A strategy under the new leadership regime, but Russell has been particularly adept at winning investor confidence in that area. The acquisition of Premacure for an undisclosed upfront and milestones is the most recent in a string of deals that has diversified Shire’s pipeline with interesting assets in niche market opportunities. Premacure brings Shire a Phase II protein-replacement therapy for a rare eye disease that affects premature infants, retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). It expands Shire’s Human Genetic Therapies rare disease unit into neonatology. The product in development, a formulation of recombinant human insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) combined with a recombinant version of its naturally occurring binding protein, insulin-like growth factor-1 binding protein-3 (IGFBP3), is potentially the first preventive treatment for ROP. - Jessica Merrill

AbbVie/Receptos: San Diego-based Receptos has licensed an antibody to treat the rare disease eosinophilic esophagitis from AbbVie, although the Chicago pharma retains an option to reacquire some rights to the drug. In a March 13 deal, Receptos received global rights to an interleukin-13 antagonist now known as RPC4046, for which it plans to perform a Phase II trial. Upon receipt of Phase II data, AbbVie can exercise an option for a pre-negotiated fee, under which it would obtain full rights to the drug outside the U.S., and split U.S. proceeds equally with Receptos in a co-promotion agreement. The two companies would also split the costs of Phase III trials equally. AbbVie predecessor Abbott Laboratories previously had studied the drug’s safety in a Phase I trial in mild-to-moderate persistent asthma. Receptos typically focuses on immune and metabolic disorders; the start-up’s lead program, RPC1063, is in Phase II for multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis. The company raised $50 million in a 2012 Series B round, and has G protein-coupled receptor discovery partnerships with Eli Lilly, Ono Pharmaceutical and Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals. Other drugs targeting IL-13, a protein linked to airway diseases and inflammation, include Genentech’s Phase III lebrikizumab and Rigel Pharmaceuticals' R256, the subject of a partnership with AstraZeneca. Receptos said about 300,000 patients in the U.S. and EU suffer from eosinophilic esophagitis, which affects swallowing and can lead to food impaction; the disease typically is treated with topical steroids. - Paul Bonanos

Merck/Luminex: Merck & Co. has signed on a second partner to make a companion diagnostic for its mid-to-late-stage Alzheimer’s disease drug, MK-8931. The New Jersey-based pharma announced March 13 that it will team up with Luminex Corp. on a diagnostic device that will use the Austin, Texas-based company’s xMAP technology to test patients for the presence of two biomarkers – total-tau and Aβ42. The diagnostic will use samples of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) obtained through a spinal tap from patients to test for the biomarkers. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. MK-8931 is an oral beta amyloid precursor protein site cleaving enzyme (BACE) inhibitor that is meant to slow the development of beta amyloid plaque in the brain. The drug is being tested in a 200-patient Phase II safety study that is expected to advance into a larger Phase III that includes 1,700 to 1,800 patients later in the year. Merck announced in December that it also signed a deal with GE Healthcare to create a companion diagnostic for MK-8931 that would use flutemetamol – a positron emission tomography (PET) imaging agent – to detect beta amyloid deposits in the brain. Both diagnostic tests will be used in the Phase III trial to help determine secondary endpoints. The diagnostics also will be used for patient selection in a trial of prodromal Alzheimer’s patients; a timeline for this trial is not yet determined. - Lisa LaMotta

Theravance/Clinigen: In its first deal since floating on the U.K.’s Alternative Stock Market (AIM) in September 2012, England-based Clinigen Group has licensed Theravance’s antibacterial Vibativ (telavancin) for marketing in the EU and certain other countries, including Switzerland and Norway. In return, Theravance will receive a $5 million upfront payment and tiered royalties on net sales ranging from 20% to 30%. Vibativ is unusual in that its marketing in the EU was suspended in May 2012 because of concerns about its then-manufacturer Ben Venue Laboratories not meeting cGMP standards. However, Clinigen can offer expertise in manufacturing, already has recruited another supplier and expects to meet with regulators shortly in order to get the suspension lifted. Clinigen usually acquires a product in order to revitalize its marketing in new geographies and indications, but the strength of the Vibativ license is that it lasts for 15 years and the product is patented until 2026, said Clinigen CEO Peter George. Clinigen also has an option to extend its license. The company also is looking to acquire or license several other products, as noted at its initial public offering last year. Telavancin is indicated in Europe for the treatment of hospital-acquired pneumonias (HAPs) due to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) infections that are refractory to other therapies, and should fit well with Clinigen’s other infectious disease product, Foscavir (foscarnet sodium), which is indicated as a last-line treatment for HAPs due to viral infections. Foscavir was acquired from AstraZeneca in 2010. The antibiotic is marketed in the U.S. for complicated skin infections and received a favorable recommendation for use in HAPs from an FDA advisory panel in November 2012. - John Davis

Boehringer Ingelheim/Presidio: Germany’s privately held Boehringer Ingelheim is teaming up with Presidio Pharmaceuticals in a non-exclusive collaboration to test three direct-acting antiviral candidates in combination therapy in hepatitis C patients with genotype 1a infection. No deal terms were released for the collaboration announced March 12. San Francisco-based Presidio will have primary responsibility for running the Phase IIa trial, slated to start during the second quarter, and each firm will retain rights to their proprietary compounds. The collaboration will team PPI-668, a pan-genotypic NS5A inhibitor from Presidio with two BI Phase III compounds – protease inhibitor faldaprevir (BI201335) and non-nucleoside polymerase inhibitor BI207127. Patients will be dosed the combination with or without ribavirin – the trial will be interferon-free. The trial will measure on-treatment antiviral response and sustained virologic response (SVR) rates, with SVR data for four and 12 weeks post-treatment expected to be available in the fourth quarter, Presidio said. Presidio Chief Medical Officer Nathaniel Brown said the study will focus on genotype 1a patients, because that variant has proven more difficult to treat in various companies’ HCV trials to date than genotype 1b. Genotype 1 virus is the most prevalent form of HCV in North America. - Joseph Haas
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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