Drug companies like to present their first deals of the year at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, and this year was no exception. As the annual gathering of biotech and big pharma executives kicked off in San Francisco last week, companies unveiled a flurry of acquisitions and collaborations, with an emphasis on oncology.
Tensha Therapeutics said it will be acquired by Roche for $115 million plus up to $420 million in milestone payments. Founded by James E. Bradner of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Tensha offers an epigenetic approach to fighting cancer by disrupting bromodomain and extraterminal domain (BET) proteins. The company’s lead product, TEN-010, is a small molecule invented by Bradner and chemist Jun Qi.
Juno Therapeutics, a leader in engineering T cells to fight cancer, said it paid about $125 million to acquire AbVitro, a Boston-based firm with technology for sequencing and exploring T cells. In a third acquisition, Merck & Co. purchased IOmet Pharma, a Scottish immuno-oncology company that brings a preclinical pipeline of small-molecule inhibitors of IDO and TDO, enzymes associated with cancer.
At least one new company appeared on the scene. The next-generation sequencing specialist Illumina said it is creating Grail, which seeks to screen for cancer using a simple blood test. Grail launches with more than $100 million in funding from Illumina and Arch Venture Partners plus investment from Bezos Expeditions, Bill Gates, and Sutter Hill Ventures.
Other deals were partnerships of the sort that large companies increasingly use to fill their drug pipelines.
Sanofi announced two. One is a collaboration with Warp Drive Bio to discover cancer drugs and antibiotics by harnessing the molecules and mechanisms of nature. The other is a deal with Innate Pharma to develop bispecific antibodies that engage natural killer cells to kill tumors.
Broadening its immuno-oncology portfolio, Novartis struck an agreement with Surface Oncology that gives it access to preclinical compounds that target T cells, inhibitory cytokines, and immunosuppressive metabolites in the tumor microenvironment.
At the meeting, Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez acknowledged that the company has “been criticized for being late to the party” around so-called checkpoint inhibitors, molecules that release the brakes on the immune system. But he noted that Novartis added many cancer partnerships in 2015 and now has “quite a full portfolio of both checkpoint inhibitors as well as other immuno-oncology targets.”
Likewise, although Pfizer executives primarily talked up the company’s pending merger with Allergan, they also defended its immuno-oncology efforts. Conceding a lagging position at present, R&D chief Mikael Dolsten said Pfizer will become a leading player as the field moves toward combined agents. Immuno-oncology will be “a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.