Treg space continues to heat up as AbbVie puts up almost $50M upfront to partner with little-known biotech
AbbVie is joining its fellow Big Pharma competitors and jumping into the Treg space.
In a collaboration deal announced early Monday morning, the Chicago-based pharma company said it would be teaming up with private biotech Cugene to advance a single Treg program targeting IL-2. AbbVie is shelling out $48.5 million upfront to collaborate and will pay an undisclosed sum of milestones and royalties.
AbbVie also gets the option to obtain an exclusive license for certain IL-2-targeting Treg programs, including the one involved in Monday’s deal, dubbed CUG252. The candidate, Cugene’s lead, is officially described as a “Treg-selective IL-2 mutein” designed to treat autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
Researchers hope to treat these conditions using Treg cells, which police the immune system and can recognize the body’s own proteins. They are able to tell other immune cells not to attack when they see cells studded with those receptors, but can go awry in certain diseases when the immune system attacks healthy cells.
By simultaneously targeting IL-2, the candidate attempts to use Tregs to fight such conditions while also tamping down on undesired IL-2 activity.
AbbVie is joining an increasingly crowded Treg space that’s seen investment from Merck, Takeda, Amgen, Eli Lilly, Sangamo and a suite of up-and-coming biotechs. The ball has really gotten rolling in the last 18 months or so, particularly after Merck’s $1.85 billion buyout of Pandion in February 2021.
Truist Securities analyst Robyn Karnauskas notes it’s still way too early to anoint a winner or frontrunner in this Big Pharma race. AbbVie’s deal with Cugene serves more as another validation point for the pathway, while doubly boosting AbbVie’s already dominant position in the immunotherapy space.
The deal could also give a competitive edge to Sangamo, Karnauskas said, which is the only company in the clinic with an “engineered CAR-Treg cell therapy.”
For Cugene, meanwhile, this deal likely puts the biotech on the map as there is little known about it — the company has yet to put out one of its own press releases. A company website does detail some of its pipeline, where Cugene outlines its goals to go after solid tumors with other programs. But CUG252 remains the company’s only clinical program thus far.
“Today’s agreement highlights Cugene’s unique precision engineering platform that has yielded multiple product candidates, including CUG252,” Cugene CEO Luke Li said in a statement Monday.