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.

Illustration: Assistant Editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

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Don Kyle spent more than 20 years working for Purdue Pharma, right through the US opioid epidemic that led to the company’s rise and eventual infamy. But contrary to Purdue’s focus on OxyContin, Kyle was researching non-opioid painkillers — that is, until the company shelved his research.

As the company’s legal troubles mounted, Kyle found an unlikely way to reboot the project. In 2019, he took his work to an Oklahoma State University center that’s slated to receive more than two-thirds of the state’s $272 million settlement with Purdue over claims that the drugmaker’s behavior ignited the epidemic of opioid use and abuse.

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Bill Haney, Dragonfly CEO (Dave Pedley/Getty Images for SXSW)

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