Cel­gene signs Jounce as its new biotech star in $2.6B ‘im­muno-on­col­o­gy 2.0’ pact

Over the past year Cel­gene has com­mit­ted $1.25 bil­lion in cash – plus bil­lions more in mile­stones – to a pair of ma­jor im­muno-on­col­o­gy deals with Juno and Agios. To­day, Cel­gene has cho­sen its new star part­ner for can­cer R&D, step­ping up with a rich­ly front-end­ed $2.56 bil­lion deal to col­lab­o­rate with up­start Jounce Ther­a­peu­tics’ on its lead I/O pro­gram, plus a pack­age of treat­ments in dis­cov­ery.

It’s a clas­sic Cel­gene deal, swing­ing for the fences for a po­ten­tial block­buster or two while ag­gres­sive­ly woo­ing up-and-com­ing de­vel­op­ers with an open check­book and an open mind about leav­ing lead re­search ef­forts on the drugs to their new dance part­ner. More such deals are on the way, as top ex­ecs at Cel­gene pave the way to new pacts de­signed to take them well past the first wave of check­point in­hibitors, as well as the T cell treat­ments now in late-stage de­vel­op­ment, to com­mand a lead­ing role for it­self in the field.

Cel­gene is pay­ing $225 mil­lion in the up­front, adding $36 mil­lion in eq­ui­ty and com­mit­ting up to $2.3 bil­lion in mile­stones to com­plete the deal. In turn the big biotech gets dibs on a 40% share of U.S. prof­its for Jounce’s lead drug, the pre­clin­i­cal JTX-2011, plus a 75% share for its un­named suc­ces­sor and a split on three more pro­grams. There’s al­so an opt-in avail­able on an ex­per­i­men­tal check­point pro­gram tak­ing shape at Jounce.

Once Cel­gene choos­es to opt in, the two com­pa­nies will divvy up ex­pens­es the same way they plan to share prof­its. And Cel­gene gets all ex-U.S. rev­enue with a roy­al­ty stream for Jounce.

Rob Her­sh­berg, CSO of Cel­gene

“We love deals like this,” Cel­gene CSO Rob Her­sh­berg tells me. “ICOS is the most ad­vanced in the (Jounce) pipeline, dri­ving the eco­nom­ics, but it is way be­yond a T-cell deal. Agios is a per­fect ex­am­ple, push­ing the en­ve­lope be­yond the con­ven­tion­al check­point sto­ry.”

Her­sh­berg sees Agios as the best in can­cer meta­bol­ics. And now he’s been deeply im­pressed by the team at Jounce – im­muno-on­col­o­gy rock star Jim Al­li­son is a sci­en­tif­ic co-founder – and its abil­i­ties to iden­ti­fy bio­mark­ers while clear­ly defin­ing pa­tient sub­groups most like­ly to ben­e­fit.

“The qual­i­ty of the sci­ence and the peo­ple is re­al­ly good,” says the CSO.

Cel­gene has a col­lab­o­ra­tion in place with As­traZeneca’s PD-L1 dur­val­um­ab, adds Her­sh­berg. But when the check­points can re­li­ably help about 25% of pa­tients as a sin­gle agent, Cel­gene has a big fo­cus on that oth­er 75% of the mar­ket.

Adds Her­sh­berg: “We don’t want to com­pete with 500 oth­er tri­als in com­bi­na­tion with a check­point.”

Rich Mur­ray, CEO Jounce Ther­a­peu­tics

“This is re­al­ly go­ing to al­low us to ex­pand the way we need to,” says Jounce CEO Rich Mur­ray. Cur­rent­ly op­er­at­ing with a staff of 60, Mur­ray ex­pects to add 20 more em­ploy­ees lat­er in the year, with the lead drug go­ing to its first, four-part adap­tive study that starts with safe­ty and PK and leads to the ef­fi­ca­cy stage in the sec­ond half of next year.

That lines up with a pop­u­lar strat­e­gy on can­cer drug de­vel­op­ment, where the tra­di­tion­al break­down in tri­als has now blend­ed in­to a rel­a­tive­ly fast shot at piv­otal re­sults.  The lead pro­gram will be test­ed as a sin­gle agent and in com­bo with a PD-1 check­point in­hibitor. And Jounce plans to push its own check­point pro­gram in­to the clin­ic as a “log­i­cal com­po­nent” of a larg­er on­col­o­gy ef­fort like this.

The plat­form com­pa­ny was launched by Third Rock, ring­ing up $103 mil­lion in two ven­ture rounds from in­vestors deeply im­pressed by its mar­quee sci­en­tif­ic co-founders, Al­li­son and Pam Shar­ma.

The lead drug says a lot about Jounce. It’s fo­cused on ICOS, AKA the In­ducible T cell CO-Stim­u­la­tor, a pro­tein on the sur­face of T cells Jounce — and now Cel­gene — be­lieves can spur an im­mune re­sponse against a pa­tient’s can­cer.  Im­muno-on­col­o­gy has been at the cross­roads of a mul­ti­tude of deals over the past three years, and Cel­gene clear­ly wants to be in the front end of the sec­ond wave — what Mur­ray calls im­muno-on­col­o­gy 2.0 — af­ter Bris­tol-My­ers and Mer­ck led the way with Op­di­vo and Keytru­da for check­point in­hi­bi­tion.

Cel­gene has a big fo­cus on on­col­o­gy, with fran­chis­es for Revlim­id and Abrax­ane fund­ing a large pipeline ef­fort that in­cludes pacts for Juno’s JCAR015 and JCAR017. Af­ter that comes im­munol­o­gy and in­flam­ma­tion.

Mur­ray says Jounce start­ed off 2016 with a va­ri­ety of op­tions on the ta­ble, pri­mar­i­ly re­volv­ing around an IPO or a ma­jor pact. The mar­ket hasn’t co­op­er­at­ed, yet, on the IPO, and af­ter try­ing out var­i­ous “fla­vors” of po­ten­tial deals, Jounce opt­ed for a big scoop of Cel­gene.

J&J gets a fresh OK for es­ke­t­a­mine, but is it re­al­ly the game-chang­er for de­pres­sion Trump keeps tweet­ing about?

Backed by an enthusiastic set of tweets from President Trump and a landmark OK for depression, J&J scooped up a new approval from the FDA for Spravato today. But this latest advance will likely bring fresh scrutiny to a drug that’s spurred some serious questions about the data, as well as the price.

First, the approval.

Regulators stamped their OK on the use of Spravato — developed as esketamine, a nasal spray version of the party drug Special K or ketamine — for patients suffering from major depressive disorder with acute suicidal ideation or behavior.

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FDA hands Mor­phoSys and In­cyte a quick OK on their po­ten­tial block­buster CAR-T al­ter­na­tive

Nearly three years after okaying the CAR-Ts Yescarta and Kymriah, the FDA has approved a new CD19 therapy.

MorphoSys’ Monjuvi, or tafasitamab-cxix, was cleared Friday for use in refractory diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DBLCL). The approval sets up both MorphoSys and their commercial partner Incyte to compete with Gilead and Novartis in the ultra-competitive indication, where similar trial results and far easier delivery could allow them to cut a fair share of the market.

So Covid-19 leader BioN­Tech has a can­cer vac­cine in de­vel­op­ment? Yes, and Re­gen­eron just jumped in for the PhII com­bo study

Before the coronavirus global emergency stole the R&D show in biopharma, the leaders in the race to develop new mRNA therapies had a big interest in determining if their tech could be used to create an effective cancer vaccine after all the first-gen tries had failed to impress. So perhaps it’s not surprising that an early cut of the data at frontrunner BioNTech went largely unnoticed.

Unless you were at Regeneron.

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CymaBay flash­es pos­i­tive re­sults from the tri­al they have to re­launch

Two weeks after the FDA lifted its clinical hold on their lead drug, CymaBay said it showed positive results in an aborted Phase III trial.

The drug, a small molecule known as seladelpar, had been in development for three different liver conditions before an independent review of a NASH study last year showed that it might actually be damaging patient’s liver cells. The FDA slapped a clinical hold across all three trials, only lifting it last month when an FDA review determined that the drug hadn’t caused liver damage.

Covid-19 roundup: Eli Lil­ly retro­fits RVs for first-of-its-kind an­ti­body tri­al with NIH; Am­gen, Ab­b­Vie, Take­da team on a drug

Eli Lilly and the NIH are about to start a first-of-its-kind trial that researchers and developers have talked about for months as a way of providing temporary immunity to the most at-risk populations.

Lilly announced this morning that it will start a 2,400-person trial with the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases to test whether its experimental Covid-19 neutralizing antibody can prevent people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities from developing the disease. The idea, known as passive immunity, is that rather than waiting on a vaccine to induce people to develop antibodies, doctors can give them lab-grown antibodies. Ideally, those antibodies will either attack the new SARS-CoV-2 infection, if the patient has recently been exposed, or persist in the blood for several weeks and prevent infection or disease for that period.

Im­mu­nic's lead MS drug hits pri­ma­ry and key sec­ondary end­points in PhII, but ques­tions re­main

Just a week after its lead program began enrolling patients in a study to treat Covid-19, Immunic Therapeutics is making more waves.

This time, the biotech is providing a glimpse at topline data from a Phase II trial studying the efficacy of vidofludimus calcium, or IMU-838, in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis patients. Taken orally, the candidate met its primary endpoint in reducing the cumulative number of combined unique active MRI lesions after 24 weeks for a 45 mg dose compared to a placebo, as well as a key secondary endpoint in such reductions for the 30 mg dose.

Sanofi un­der for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tion for De­pakine al­le­ga­tions; Beam li­cens­es CAR-T tech from Ox­ford Bio­med­ica

Sanofi is facing a formal investigation on manslaughter charges, due to accusations that its epilepsy drug Depakine caused birth malfunctions and slow neurological development when taken during pregnancy.

The French pharma was formally charged in February, years after evidence surfaced that the drug, sodium valproate, posed neurodevelopmental risks. Sodium valproate first hit the market in 1967 for the treatment of epilepsy and bipolar disorder, and is currently prescribed in more than 100 countries.

Rich Heyman (ARCH)

Rich Hey­man joins PMV Phar­ma, a p53 biotech, as it adds $70 mil­lion in Se­ries D

Less than a year after pulling in an impressive $62 million Series C round, PMV Pharma is back at it again.

The Cranbury, NJ-based biotech announced Monday an additional $70 million in Series D financing as it seeks to develop cancer therapies targeting p53 mutations. Additionally, PMV also introduced longtime biotech entrepreneur Rich Heyman as chairman of the board of directors.

“This financing provides PMV Pharma with the resources to expand our pipeline and to potentially advance multiple p53 therapies into the clinic,” said PMV president and CEO David Mack in a statement.

Days af­ter seal­ing Sanofi pact, Kymera beats a path to the Nas­daq with $100M IPO pitch

Back in March, when Kymera Therapeutics closed $102 million in Series C funding led by Biotechnology Value Fund and Redmile Group, CEO Nello Mainolfi noted the protein degradation player was “at the cusp of transitioning” into a fully integrated R&D company. Five months and a major Sanofi pact later, he’s back asking for another little push to get there.

Kymera has penciled in $100 million in its first IPO pitch — although given the public market’s seemingly insatiable appetite for biotechs these days the final figure is anyone’s guess.