Roche has snapped up a British biotech which has its own special twist on immuno-oncology — and a couple of key Yank associates in high-profile roles in biotech.
The pharma giant, which has been trying to move ahead in a pack of aggressive PD-1/L1 players with Tecentriq, just paid $81 million (€70 million) upfront and is adding a slate of $679 million more in milestones to grab hold of Tusk Therapeutics — a startup with two late-preclinical programs that are aimed at helping to fashion the next-gen I/O world.
Roche is taking one of those programs, a CD25 program that has laid claim — with tech licensed from Cancer Research UK and University College, London — to inhibiting regulatory T cells in the tumor microenvironment that play a well known role in suppressing an immune response.
The buyout gives Roche a clean scoop of the Treg IP, and they’re letting the team at Tusk spin out into a new company called Black Belt Therapeutics to continue on with another drug.
“We have some interesting new targets we’re focusing on,” says Tusk/Black Belt CEO Luc Dochez, but it’s too early to discuss it much. In the meantime, he tells me, they’ll be working on the next round of financing for Black Belt with about 10 people staying on at the new company for the next stage of the R&D journey.
In a world teeming with I/O startups and preclinical programs, Tusk has been somewhat overlooked. It was bankrolled by Droia and went on to develop its two preclinical programs. Last spring at AACR its team displayed evidence of its work in animal models, blocking the rogue players in the immune system while preserve signaling of the IL-2 cytokine on effector cells.
The biotech also has been working on a CD38 mAb program designed to both suppress Tregs as well as kick up an immune response, targeting a lead indication on multiple myeloma.
Now, here’s where it gets really interesting. The executive team at Tusk includes some veteran players. Dochez was the BD guy at Prosensa. The chief development officer is Kevin Moulder, who’s had a series of stints, including CSO at F-star, a high-profile antibody shop with widespread contacts in the R&D world.
On the board lineup you’ll find two high-profile players: George Golumbeski, the ex-Celgene BD chief who played a lead role in forging the pipeline (with a big focus in multiple myeloma) and Terry Rosen, the CEO at Arcus who sold the early-stage Flexus to Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2015 for $1.25 billion. These are people you want to have on speed dial.
This is also one of the first new deals at Roche since James Sabry was bumped up to the lead role in BD, jumping from dealmaking for Genentech exclusively to a company wide role at Roche that took him to Basel. And it has all the basic elements you’d expect of a Sabry deal, targeting new tech in a core area of R&D without being too splashy on the deal terms.
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