- Bristol Myers Squibb on Tuesday said it will pay $200 million to acquire rights to an experimental cancer immmunotherapy developed by Massachusetts biotech Agenus.
- Per deal terms, Bristol Myers could pay Agenus up to $1.36 billion more in conditional payments if certain development, regulatory and marketing milestones are hit. Agenus also retains certain options to participate in testing the drug or, if it's ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration, co-promote it in the U.S.
- The drug, which could enter clinical testing later this year, is aimed at a protein target called TIGIT that's lately become of interest to several top cancer drugmakers, including Merck & Co., Roche and Gilead.
TIGIT is the latest immunotherapy target to draw interest as cancer developers invest billions of dollars in research to find new ways of recruiting the body's immune system against tumors.
So far, early study results from Roche and Merck suggest adding TIGIT-blocking drugs on top of medicines like Tecentriq and Keytruda could improve treatment response among patients with lung cancer. Interim data from a clinical trial testing a closely watched anti-TIGIT therapy developed by Arcus Biosciences, meanwhile, are expected by June.
Bristol Myers, which alongside Roche and Merck is one of the top cancer immunotherapy developers, already was exploring TIGIT as a target. A compound dubbed BMS-986207 is listed on a federal trials database as being in several studies, two of which are recruiting patients.
Clearly, Bristol Myers sees potential in the target and agreed to pay Agenus a sizable sum upfront for a compound that's only been evaluated preclinically.
"AGEN1777's differentiated mechanism of action provides the potential for potent anti-tumor activity; catalyzing our clinical TIGIT strategy aimed at serving more patients with unmet needs in cancer," said Debbie Law, a senior vice president in cancer research at Bristol Myers, in a statement. AGEN1777 is Agenus' name for the drug.
Notably, AGEN1777 is a bispecific antibody, meaning it can bind to two different targets simultaneously. One target is TIGIT, which is found on immune cells. The companies didn't disclose the second.
According to the companies, preclinical testing showed the drug's potential in treating tumors where drugs like Keytruda or Bristol Myers' Opdivo or anti-TIGIT antibodies alone might be ineffective.
Agenus plans to file an application to the FDA in the second quarter asking for permission to begin clinical testing of AGEN1777. Bristol Myers will then advance studies of the drug in "high-priority tumor indications" like non-small cell lung cancer, the most common form of the disease and an indication for which multiple immunotherapies are approved for use.
The pharma is also investing in research exploring another immunotherapy target called LAG-3 that, like TIGIT, has drawn interest from several drugmakers. Bristol has been the first to report success in a Phase 3 trial testing a LAG-3 drug alongside another immunotherapy. Detailed results from that study will be presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting next month.