- German drugmaker Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH is joining the crowded race to develop new immune treatments for cancer, buying rights to a preclinical checkpoint inhibitor from OSE Immunotherapeutics SA in a deal that lines up over $1.3 billion in contingent payments.
- Boehringer will only pay OSE about $18 million upfront, plus another $18 million upon initiation of Phase 1 testing of OSE's compound. But the long chain of milestones is indicative of how in-demand even preclinical assets are in the red-hot immuno-oncology field.
- Notably, OSE's candidate is not a PD-1 or PD-L1 blocker; it inhibits the action of a ligand known as CD47 to boost anti-tumor immunity.
Few areas of drug development are more active than immuno-oncology, and cancer therapeutics in general.
A widely cited study published in December 2017 from researchers at the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) turned up more than 2,000 immuno-oncology compounds in preclinical and clinical development. More than 150 of those candidates block PD-1 or PD-L1, the two checkpoint molecules targeted by Merck & Co.'s Keytruda (pembrolizumab), Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Opdivo (nivolumab) and three other approved agents.
Commercial success of those drugs has spurred many other companies to launch their own efforts, with hopes of finding a second-generation checkpoint inhibitor or another immuno-modulatory drug.
With the OSE deal, Boehringer is dipping its toes in the field through a relatively cheap upfront bet on the French drugmaker's preclinical candidate. OSE-172, as the compound is known, targets a receptor on myeloid lineage cells called SIRP-alpha.
Essentially, OSE-172 works by blocking CD47 from binding to and subsequently triggering the cell inhibitory effects of SIRP-alpha. In theory, this mechanism of action should boost the activity of T-cells and alter the tumor microenvironment to help the body better recognize and resist cancer cells.
"A key area of focus is the identification of drugs that target myeloid cell immune regulatory receptors of which SIRP-alpha is a leading example," said Boehringer's Jonathon Sedgwick, head of cancer immunology and immune modulation research, in an April 4 statement.
While CD47 is not as well studied as PD-1/L1, Boehringer will still find itself with competition. CRI's analysis identified 19 other agents in development that also target CD47.
Overall, Boehringer's research presence in oncology is more limited than some of the leaders in the space. The company currently markets two drugs for non-small cell lung cancer, Giotrif (afatinib) and Vargatef (nintedanib).