Novartis continues its blitz on NASH deals, grabbing an exclusive tie-up in race to develop cocktails

Vasant Narasimhan, Novartis

Five months ago Novartis $NVS rocked Conatus’ world with a collaboration deal for its NASH drug emricasan. The biotech’s stock quadrupled in value. And it got another boost today as the pharma giant followed up with its announcement that it is indeed picking up the exclusive worldwide option for the drug, chipping in an extra $7 million to seal the deal.

Conatus stock $CNAT is up 13% in pre-market trading and the micro biotech has seen its market cap break through the $200 million mark.

The San Diego-based biotech is now fully allied with the pharma giant, which is covering half the cost of a newly launched Phase IIb trial of emricasan. The oral pan-caspase inhibitor has scored positive, early-stage biomarker data for inflammation and cell death. And Novartis wants to add it to its FXR agonist drugs in a combination drug approach for Phase III as its investigators expand their portfolio of NASH therapies.

Novartis is also planning to test the drug as a monotherapy as investigators map out a big late-stage assault on NASH and liver fibrosis.

Novartis also signed up with Allergan just a few weeks ago, combining an FXR agonist with Allergan’s cenicriviroc — CVC — for the treatment of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. Novartis believes that Allergan’s CVC — which tackles CCR2 and CCR5, a pair of inflammatory chemokine receptors — is the kind of drug that will figure prominently in new cocktails for NASH, a major market opportunity that has attracted a lineup of rivals like Gilead, Intercept and Shire.

Intercept $ICPT underscored the intense rivalry in the field with its announcement today that their late-stage NASH program achieved a big goal.

“In our NASH program, we achieved a major milestone with the completion of enrollment of our interim analysis cohort in REGENERATE, the first and largest Phase III trial in NASH,” said CEO Mark Pruzanski in a prepared statement. “As we look to the middle of the year, we expect to announce top-line data from two additional Phase II trials of OCA: CONTROL, assessing combination statin therapy in NASH patients, and AESOP in primary sclerosing cholangitis.”

But Novartis seems determined to leapfrog the leaders.

“We are pleased to add another important medicine to our liver portfolio with emricasan, which has shown potential in patients with advanced fibrosis and cirrhosis,” said Vas Narasimhan, Global Head, Drug Development and Chief Medical Officer, Novartis. “We look forward to advancing our broad portfolio of NASH and chronic liver disease programs to address this growing unmet need.”

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