RAPT signs on with struggling Hanmi for Asian entrance of cancer therapy aimed at 'charged tumors'
In the early 60s, two British virologists analyzing tumor cells from Uganda made a landmark scientific discovery that would lead to a landmark scientific error.
They discovered the first cancer-causing virus, later eponymously named Epstein-Barr, and America — fresh off the polio vaccine’s unprecedented success — was ready to believe that most cancers were caused by viruses and thus could be cured by vaccines. The problem was simple: Most cancers weren’t, and the ones caused by Epstein-Barr mostly afflicted people oceans away from Washington DC, where the National Cancer Institute began spending millions on the subfield.
So as RAPT Therapeutics watched the early Phase I results roll in last year on a treatment aimed largely at virus-fueled tumors, they began planning to cross the Pacific. Today they announced a collaboration with South Korea’s Hanmi Pharmaceuticals worth $10 million upfront and up to $108 million in potential development and sales milestones.
“It provides additional shots on goal and more proof-of-concept data,” RAPT CEO Brian Wong told Endpoints News. “The second thing it does is provide a pivot to Asia.”
The deal came after several months of negotiations with a variety of Asian players in multiple countries, Wong said. It will give Hanmi an exclusive license to develop and commercialize RAPT’s lead product, FLX475, for cancer in South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hanmi will augment an existing Phase I/II and begin their own Phase II in parallel with a forthcoming US Phase II.
Formed from spare parts leftover after Bristol-Myers Squibb bought Flexus in 2015, RAPT – known as FLX Bio until this past May – targets what they call “charged tumors.” These are tumors that have all the components to be hit by the body’s immune response but survive by harnessing regulatory T cells.
These T cells are meant to suppress the immune system and stop the body from attacking healthy cells, but a tumor can also sometimes use them to survive. FLX475 blocks a pathway on those cells called CCR4, and RAPT thinks that will prevent them from entering the tumor and turning down the immune response.
And these charged tumors happen to include many virus-associated cancers and others, such as gastric cancer, that are more prevalent in Asia.
“We are running our own global trials but we really we couldn’t access all of the charged tumors,” Wong said. “This is what the collaboration allows us to do.”
For RAPT, the partnership comes after its hopes of a $70-million-plus IPO got cold-shouldered by an otherwise popping summer biotech market. Ultimately, they settled for raising $36 million on 3 million shares.
For Hanmi, the small biotech deal comes after it’s been spurned by its old deep-pocketed partners. J&J and Eli Lilly dumped two deals with the company this year worth a combined $1.5 billion, and of course, in 2016 Boehringer Ingelheim abruptly walked out of a $730 million partnership after Hanmi failed to report patient deaths in a trial.