Hit with a trial failure, Agenus brings out the ax to chop staff, reorganize

Agenus CEO Garo Armen

Over the last few weeks Lexington, MA-based Agenus has traded in a partnership with Incyte for some fast cash and followed up with a stinging setback in the clinic, acknowledging that its lead cancer vaccine flopped.

Today, it’s time to restructure.

Agenus is closing a site in Basel, cutting 50 staffers and consolidating in Cambridge, UK and Lexington. Its R&D chief, Robert Stein, is leaving as well.

A leaner Agenus will concentrate on two preclinical antibodies targeting 4-1BB and TIGIT, as well as AutoSynVax, a neoantigen cancer vaccine. The company says it “is exploring combination studies with AutoSynVax and Agenus’ checkpoint antibodies. Substantial focus will also be placed on the company’s manufacturing operations in Berkeley, CA to ensure GMP readiness.”

A spokesperson for the company followed up with us Thursday afternoon, noting:

Regarding our CTLA-4 & PD-1 trial plans, we are expecting data from our CTLA-4 Phase 1 study later this year and we are initiating our PD-1 clinical trial to support the combination of CTLA-4 and PD-1 mid-year.  We will define an optimal dose of the combination by end of year.  This positions Agenus for pivotal trials in 2018.  Our goal is to rapidly move this combination study through the clinic with the hope of commercialization in the next 4 years.

A few weeks ago Agenus backed away from a 50/50 deal split arrangement that it had with Incyte on antibody development, triggering some speculation that the company was too weak financially to keep up its end of the bargain. Agenus settled for an $80 million cash infusion and a royalty stream on any products that hit the market. Subsequent news about the trial failure for their cancer vaccine Prophage — limited to an SEC filing — helps put that move into context.

“These changes to our organizational structure make us a leaner and more focused organization, which is critically important for our next phase of advancement towards commercial readiness,” CEO Garo Armen said in a statement. “We will also maintain a focused R&D effort to rapidly generate and develop best of breed novel immuno-oncology candidates. It is important to indicate that as an agile and efficient company we aim to rapidly deliver effective treatments at affordable prices.”

The biotech’s spokesperson told me in February that while their failed Phase II had been closed, the program for Prophage is definitely continuing. And she followed up to confirm that this morning. Just a few weeks ago Agenus announced plans to combine Prophage and the PD-1 drug Keytruda in a new trial. The failed study was in late-stage patients and this next study will be for newly diagnosed glioblastoma patients.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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