- AstraZeneca on Tuesday agreed to buy privately held Neogene Therapeutics in a deal that represents the British drugmaker’s first significant acquisition in the field of cancer cell therapy.
- Per deal terms, AstraZeneca will pay $200 million upfront for the startup, a developer of cell therapies for tough-to-reach solid tumors. AstraZeneca could add another $120 million in milestone payments if certain unspecified targets are met.
- Formed in Amsterdam in 2018, Neogene is one of several companies to emerge in recent years with technology meant to improve on cell-based treatments. The biotech raised $110 million in venture financing in 2020 from a wide range of investors and, in May, was cleared by Dutch regulators to begin its first human trial.
Once a fringe area of cancer research, cell therapy has exploded over the last decade. Since 2017, several treatments have come to market for blood cancers like leukemia and multiple myeloma, establishing cell therapy as a new class of medicines.
Along the way, interest among large drugmakers has grown. Novartis and Gilead Sciences were some of the field’s earliest adopters, cutting deals that led to the first two CAR-T therapies to win approval, Kymriah and Yescarta. Bristol Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson followed with deals that have also produced marketed treatments.
And after a slow start, cell therapy sales are picking up, too, as studies prove the therapies’ benefit in earlier lines of treatment. Companies that weren’t previously involved, like Roche and AstraZeneca, are starting to enter the field as well.
As latecomers, AstraZeneca and Roche are focusing on newer approaches that attempt to overcome cell therapy’s limitations. Chief among these strategies are more convenient, “off-the-shelf” alternatives to personalized medicines like Kymriah, and expanding into solid tumors. Roche is working on off-the-shelf treatments with Poseida Therapeutics and Adaptimmune, and on solid tumor therapies with ArsenalBio, for example.
The Neogene deal puts a public stamp on its efforts, with Susan Galbraith, AstraZeneca’s head of oncology research, noting in a statement that the deal “complement[s] the cell therapy capability we have built over the last three years.”
Neogene was seeded by investors including Two River Ventures, a firm formed by cell therapy veteran and one-time Kite Pharma CEO Arie Belldegrun. The company is developing cell-based treatments designed to hunt for “neoantigens,” or unique protein flags that tumors acquire as they mutate. Neogene samples tumor cells, unearths targetable neoantigens, and then engineers cell therapies to simultaneously recognize several of them.
AstraZeneca believes the approach can unlock “targets previously inaccessible” to cell therapy, though that hasn’t been proven. Neogene’s most advanced program, known as NT-125, is expected to begin its first trial next year in people with advanced solid tumors, according to results reported this month by one of its investors, Syncona.
The company’s research also includes early-stage work licensed from the National Cancer Institute and targeting mutations to the KRAS and TP53 genes, both well-known cancer targets.