Playing the long game in I/O, J&J inks $1.04B deal to buy oncolytic virus platform biotech BeneVir

J&J $JNJ is bringing a low-profile biotech — and some early-stage oncolytic viruses — into its fold, cementing its immuno-oncology pipeline with some nascent technologies that it believes will be transformational.

Matt Mulvey

Janssen, J&J’s biotech arm, is paying $140 million upfront to acquire BeneVir in a deal that carries a string of additional milestone payments up to $900 million. Though the oncolytic viruses it just bagged are still preclinical candidates, looking down the road, Janssen believes they can treat solid tumor cancers both as standalone therapies and in combos.

At the core of BeneVir is the T-Stealth platform, which it says makes viruses that can at once infect and kill cancer cells, evade detection by immune T cells (so they have more time to spread), and help activate T cells against antigen-presenting cancer cells. The goal, according to CEO Matt Mulvey, is to reach patients who do not respond to checkpoint inhibitors.

Peter Lebowitz

“Oncolytic viral immunotherapy holds exciting potential in the treatment of solid tumors through the priming and augmenting of an anti-tumor immune response,” said Peter Lebowitz, Janssen’s head of oncology, in a statement. “BeneVir’s unique technology platform complements our immuno-oncology research, which is focused on bringing forward an array of novel immunotherapies and combinations that may improve treatment outcomes for patients.”

Ian Mohr

Set to become a part of the Janssen Oncology Therapeutic Area, BeneVir will maintain a research presence in Rockville, MD, where it has been based since founded in 2011. The team will stay on its original track to optimize the next generation of T-Stealth oncolytic viruses and execute other preclinical activities.

Founded on research coming out of NYU researcher Ian Mohr’s lab, BeneVir first got going with a nontraditional funding source: Pansend, a HC2 Holdings subsidiary that had focused on medical device investments.

The deal marks the latest in a sudden flurry of activity for Lebowitz, who recently arranged a $350 million cash pact to partner with Legend Biotech to develop its BCMA-targeting CAR-T LCAR-B38M for multiple myeloma. J&J has had some notable successes in the cancer R&D field, but it’s been an also-ran in the I/O category. Going after these deals now indicates that the pharma giant expects it can still make a splash in a field with a multitude of rivals. That won’t be easy, but J&J is hard to ignore when the company pursues a strategy.

The deal is scheduled to close this quarter.

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VP Oncology Biology
Skyhawk Therapeutics Waltham, MA
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