- German drugmaker Boehringer Ingelheim will pay $245 million to acquire immuno-oncology developer ViraTherapeutics, doubling down on a partnership the two companies struck in 2016 to develop viral-based therapies for cancer.
- Attracting Boehringer's interest is a drug candidate based on a modified form of vesicular stomatitis virus. Such so-called oncolytic viruses are designed to both target tumor cells and trigger a broader immune counter-attack against the invading cancer.
- Since the 2016 deal, ViraTherapeutics has been advancing the VSV-GP candidate through preclinical testing, building evidence of activity that Boehringer found promising. Like many other cancer drugmakers, Boehringer is exploring immuno-oncology, although it widely trails leaders like Merck & Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Oncolytic viruses are just one small slice of the broader boom in drugmaker interest in immuno-oncology. Yet they're beginning to get more of a look, particularly as the limits facing initial immunotherapy efforts become clearer and companies turn to exploring combination treatments.
One oncolytic virus, Amgen's Imlygic (talimogene laherparepvec) for certain types of melanoma, is currently approved in the U.S. A December 2017 count by researchers at the Cancer Research Institute found a total of 67 oncolytic viruses in clinical testing, mostly in Phase 1. Another 95 are in preclinical stages, suggesting an expanding pipeline of treatments.
That clinical activity has resulted in a number of acquisitions and licensing deals, with Boehringer's the latest.
Select recent deals involving oncolytic viral therapies
|Companies involved||Deal type||Target||Deal terms|
|J&J, Benevir||Acquisition||Benevir's T-Stealth oncolytic virus platform||$140M upfront, $900M in milestones|
|Merck, Viralytics||Acquisition||Cavatak, currently in Phase 1 & 2 testing||$394M at AUD 1.75/share|
|AbbVie, Turnstone||Licensing||Rights to three oncolytic viral immunotherapies||Not disclosed|
|Bristol-Myers, PsiOxus||Licensing||Rights to NG-348||$50M upfront, $886 in milestones|
In a statement on the deal, Boehringer emphasized VSV-GP's fit with its overall research strategy in immuno-oncology.
"Our approach is rooted in transforming 'cold' tumors — or immunologically inactive tumors that are not responsive to the checkpoint blockers — to 'hot' tumors — those that are most susceptible to immune system attack," said Michel Pairet, member of Boehringer's board of managing directors overseeing the company's R&D.
While checkpoint inhibitors like Merck's Keytruda (pembrolizuamb) have found great success in certain cancers like lung and melanoma, other types are proving less responsive. And even for those types in which checkpoint inhibitors work well, many patients still don't see a benefit.
Finding ways to broaden the pool of patients who respond to immunotherapy has become a core challenge for the field, pushing drugmakers to test a dizzying array of combinations.
Boehringer is a smaller player there. But as the deal for ViraTherapeutics indicates, it's actively building out its research efforts.
Yet while Boehringer moves ahead in oncolytic viruses, it may regret exiting other cancer research. A bispecific drug candidate for multiple myeloma that the company sold to Amgen two years ago just showed impressive results, albeit in only five patients.