Friday, February 21, 2014

Deals Of The Week: Novartis Places Bid To Dominate In Cancer

While the largest deal of the week, and certainly the one receiving the most attention, has been Actavis' expansion of its branded portfolio via its $25 billion purchase of Forest Laboratories, the deal that could have major implications for a hot target space in cancer is Novartis' pick-up of a small Massachusetts biotech.

Novartis nabbed young start-up CoStim Pharmaceuticals at the beginning of the week for an undisclosed amount – a move that could make it a major force in the red hot area of cancer immunotherapy.

The closely held biotech was founded in 2012 by MPM Capital and led by MPM managing directors Luke Evnin and Robert Millman. Atlas Ventures joined MPM in early 2013 to fund the company’s $10 million Series A round. While terms of the deal were not disclosed, Atlas partner Bruce Booth wrote in a recent blog post that “if the contingent milestones are paid, this deal will return a significant portion of the entire Life Science allocation in Atlas Fund VIII.”

The Swiss pharma knows a thing or two about oncology – it’s been marketing Gleevec (imatinib), one of the earliest targeted cancer treatments and a multi-billion dollar drug annually, since 2003. And it boasts one of the richest oncology pipelines in the industry, spanning numerous solid- and liquid-tumor indications and many of the hottest biological targets. Its latest R&D foray into chimeric antigen receptor technology (CART) – and the programs it’s acquired from CoStim – has enriched the pharma’s immunotherapy platform and upped its commitment to being a dominant player in oncology.

While Novartis has been cagey about revealing what CoStim actually has to offer, Bill Sellers, its global head of oncology, says the Cambridge biotech brings four to five late-stage programs to the table – programs the industry could start hearing about in early 2015.

“One of our strengths is attacking cancer from its genetic base,” said Sellers. “But we have not done a lot of work in immunotherapy until two years ago,” he admitted.

That’s when Novartis inked its deal with the University of Pennsylvania for its CART research. The deal is based on the work of Carl June, whose lab created T-cells that express the receptor CART 19, a synthetic fusion protein consisting of antibodies that attach to the CD-19 protein, commonly expressed in chronic lymphocytic (CLL) and other B-cell mediated leukemias. The genetically engineered T-cells are injected back into the patients, where they find their way to CD-19-expressing leukemia cells and kill them.

Since pairing up with Penn, Novartis has been “building expertise internally,” said Sellers, as well as opening a large-scale manufacturing facility in Morristown, NJ. “CART has shown dramatic efficacy, but it doesn’t work in everybody,” said Sellers. “So there is room to augment that.”

Sellers said Novartis has been looking for a way to get into checkpoint inhibitors and other immunotherapies for a couple of years, knowing it doesn’t have the expertise in-house. That’s where CoStim comes in – one of its late-stage assets targets the PD-1 pathway. The smokin’ hot PD-1 pathway – if you’ve paid any attention to, or even just glanced at, companies like Merck or Bristol-Myers Squibb in recent months, then you’ve heard about their anti-PD-1 drugs. Combination therapies with these checkpoint inhibitors are going to be huge - $35 billion huge, if some analysts are to be trusted.

Merck already is jumping on the combo bandwagon – it’s inked three deals with Pfizer, Incyte and Amgen just this month to combine its anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor MK-3475 with assets in their respective pipelines.

Novartis is employing a different strategy – it’s hoping to move forward with a CART/PD-1 combo. “We are just starting to explore CART in solid tumors, which are thought to be more immunosuppressant,” said Sellers.

CART programs may be just as revolutionary as PD-1. On Feb. 19, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center announced results from a trial of adult B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia that showed 88% of patients achieved complete remission after receiving the modified T-cells. (The technology is the basis for the founding of high-profile start-up Juno Therapeutics, which currently is locked in a patent dispute over the CAR technology with Novartis.)

French biotech Servier also is getting in on the action, as you can read below in ...

Actavis/Forest – Actavis is nearly unrecognizable from the little Icelandic company it was just three years ago. The company has merged with both Warner Chilcott PLC and Watson Pharmaceuticals during that time to become a generics behemoth with multinational presence. Now, it is continuing down the road of transformation with its $25 billion acquisition of Forest Laboratories. The stock-and-cash deal will turn Actavis into a developer of specialty brand name drugs, boosting specialty products to represent about 50% of combined company revenue. North American specialty pharmaceuticals currently comprise about 30% of Actavis’ standalone revenue. Forest shareholders will get $26.04 in cash and a portion of an Actavis share for each Forest share. The total, per-share price of $89.48 represents a premium of about 25% over Forest's closing price on Feb. 14, the last trading day before the deal was announced, of $71.39. For Forest this is an ideal exit for its shareholders; activist investor Carl Icahn has said in news reports that this acquisition is a good example of when activist measures work. Forest CEO Brent Saunders has been touted as having the magic touch – he flipped Forest in less than six months after taking over and was the architect behind the sale of Bausch + Lomb to Valeant Pharmaceuticals for $8.7 billion before that. - Lisa LaMotta

Servier/Cellectis – Servier wants a piece of the CART action; the French biotech inked a collaboration with cell therapy company Cellectis on Feb. 17 for $10 million upfront and $840 million in potential milestones tied to the development, regulatory and commercial success of six potential products. The deal includes the development of UCART19, Cellectis’ lead product, a CD19-targeting compound that is in early stages, but could be a potential rival to Novartis’ lead CART program – which also targets the CD19 T-cells. “These original cell-based therapies will well complement Servier's innovative clinical oncology pipeline, which currently includes immunotherapeutic monoclonal antibodies, an HDAC inhibitor, kinase inhibitors, antiangiogenic and proapoptotic small molecules,” said Jean Pierre Abastado, head of oncology at Servier. The deal initially will focus on leukemias and lymphomas, with Servier having the option to license the products and take over development after Phase I has been completed. - L.L.

Gilead/CURx - Gilead Sciences has had its hands full, what with plotting the domination of the market for all-oral HCV treatment. So busy, in fact, that the biotech has signed only one R&D deal in almost the last two years – a preclinical partnership with antibody company MacroGenics last January, according to the Strategic Transactions database. On Feb. 19, Gilead announced its latest R&D deal, but this time it has flipped the usual script and out-licensed a late-stage candidate for development. It’s calling upon CURx Pharmaceuticals develop non-core asset inhaled fosfomycin/tobramycin to treat Pseudomonas aeruginosa lung infection in cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. The candidate met the primary endpoint in a Phase II trial in 2010 in this indication, but Gilead subsequently discontinued development. There already are two treatments for this indication approved in the U.S.: Gilead’s own Cayston (inhaled aztreonam) and Novartis' Tobi (inhaled tobramycin). In preclinical studies, inhaled fosfomycin/tobramycin has shown activity against several other pathogenic bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). About half of all CF patients become infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa and about a quarter are infected with MRSA, according to CURx. The financial details of the transaction were not disclosed. - Stacy Lawrence

Pfizer/ MIT’s Synthetic Biology Center - Pfizer and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are collaborating on the use of novel synthetic biology tools to enhance drug discovery and development. The three-year deal, announced on Feb. 20, covers multiple therapeutic areas at Pfizer and involves several core investigators at MIT’s Synthetic Biology Center, according to the MIT press release. Scientists have different definitions for synthetic biology, but, essentially, it involves integrating current and new biotech tools, systems biology and bioinformatics to enable engineering of new biological parts, in short, making new genetic codes from scratch. The ultimate goal of using such techniques is to make design and construction of novel biological systems into a professional engineering discipline. Synthetic biology as an area of scientific focus has taken off in the past decade, with support from the National Science Foundation, which funded creation of the first synthetic biotech research center, Synberc, in 2006. Participants in Synberc were the University of California at Berkeley and University of California, San Francisco, Stanford University and MIT. Since then, NSF has awarded millions of dollars more to other academic organizations to set up centers of synthetic biology research, including the J. Craig Ventor Institute and New York University. Start-up activity also is climbing, with one of the most visible practitioners, Intrexon, netting $171 million in an initial public offering last year. The ability to use synthetic biology parts as “programmable entities” presents the opportunity to create new biological processes. The partners plan to use cellular genome engineering to support development of next-generation protein expression systems. Pfizer didn’t provide more details, except for comments by Jose Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos, the company’s group  senior VP and head of Biotherapeutics R&D. He noted in a press release that “We are reaching a key inflection point where advances in synthetic biology have the potential to rapidly accelerate and improve biotherapeutic drug discovery and development, from early-stage candidate discovery through product supply.” - Wendy Diller

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