- AbbVie on Wednesday exercised an option to license a preclinical cancer immunotherapy candidate from Dutch biotech Argenx, signaling its interest in testing whether checking the immunosuppressive effects of so-called regulatory T cells could help the body attack tumors.
- The decision by AbbVie to onboard Argenx's compound, dubbed ARGX-115, lines up $625 million in potential payments for the smaller company across development, regulatory and commercial milestones.
- AbbVie and Argenx first partnered on ARGX-115 in 2016, with Argenx responsible for bringing the compound up through IND-enabling studies. Now, AbbVie will take over development work to move the drug into the clinic.
Best known for its efforts in immunology, AbbVie has built up its oncology arsenal on the back of the now blockbuster blood cancer drug Imbruvica (ibrutinib). Smaller brands like Venclexta (venetoclax) and the multiple myeloma medicine Empliciti (elotuzumab) round out the biotech's portfolio.
What it's still missing, though, is a foothold in immuno-oncology. The runaway success of checkpoint inhibitors like Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo (nivolumab) and Merck & Co.'s Keytruda (pembrolizumab) has transformed immuno-oncology drugs into a must-have for companies looking to expand in cancer.
In an effort to catch up, AbbVie has ramped up its research in the space, both internally and by inking deals with partners like Argenx. Just this past fall, the company entered a deal with Turnstone Biologics for rights to as many as three oncolytic viral immunotherapies.
"We don't have an I/O drug on the market, but that doesn't mean that we don't have one of the most active research programs," said Tom Hudson, AbbVie's head of oncology early discovery and development, in a June interview with BioPharma Dive. "It's a young program, but we've been able to recruit a lot of I/O experts from academia and from industry."
Like others looking to catch up in immuno-oncology, AbbVie is particularly interested in exploring treatment combinations, Hudson said.
The biotech is currently testing an anti-PD-1 therapy, which has come to be seen as a foundational drug for exploring new treatment pairings. Several other immune-boosting compounds, including two OX40 inhibitors, are also in AbbVie's early-stage pipeline.
Argenx's compound is currently preclinical, but the hypothesis behind how it's designed to work is one that's increasingly gaining attention from immuno-oncology drug developers.
ARGX-115 binds to a protein known as glycoprotein A repetitions predominant, or GARP. By targeting GARP, argenx believes ARGX-115 can selectively block the production and release of transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta), another protein that's used by regulatory T cells to suppress self-directed immune responses.
Limiting the immuno-suppresive effect of these Tregs, the thinking goes, could help boost the ability of the body's immune system to root out and destroy tumor cells.
AbbVie's betting TGF-beta could be key to further unleashing the body to fight off cancers. Successful development could help the biotech reach its goal of playing a role in the second generation of cancer immunotherapies.
AbbVie, though, won't be alone in trying to leapfrog the current front runners. Merck and Bristol-Myers' success has spurred drugmakers up and down the industry to increase investment in the space, and more than 2,000 immuno-oncology drugs are currently in development.