SAN FRANCISCO — The CEO of Galapagos remembers a year ago, at the same industry conference he's attended roughly two dozen times, a meeting on the 25th floor bar of a nearby high-rise. He was grabbing a drink with the head of business development at Gilead, and it was during this meeting that the two executives began mapping out the structure of what, by July, would be a 10-year research deal valued at more than $5 billion.
With that deal completed, Onno van de Stolpe, who has led Galapagos since its founding 20 years ago, is finding the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference a different experience than what he's used to.
"In the wheeling and dealing, I was always closely involved," he said in an interview with BioPharma Dive. "This year, of course, there are no interactions for me with big pharma companies anymore because there's nothing to deal with."
Though Gilead is now intricately entwined with Galapagos, the Belgian biotech isn't completely on the dealmaking sidelines. According to van de Stolpe, his company has three people on the ground in San Francisco meeting with smaller drugmakers to discuss licensing opportunities for their compounds or, potentially, acquisitions.
To that point, Galapagos announced Wednesday morning an expanded collaboration with Fibrocor Therapeutics that includes an equity stake in the privately held company as well as an exclusive option to in-license four more of its novel fibrosis programs.
Van de Stolpe, meanwhile, has been busy discussing with investors the year ahead for his company's pipeline. A mid-stage study of its experimental osteoarthritis drug is scheduled to complete near the end of 2020. Positive data could present a "very big opportunity" for Galapagos, the CEO said, due to a lack of disease-modifying treatments.
Galapagos also expects to see data from another mid-stage study testing one of its drugs for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a type of progressive lung disease. That trial just finished enrolling, according to a Monday release. Another Galapagos IPF drug, named GLPG1690, is under investigation in a Phase 3 trial.
Results from a secretive Galapagos program called Toledo should start trickling in as well. A Phase 1 study for the program's first compound will read out early this year, with a Phase 2 test evaluating it in ulcerative colitis patients set to begin before the end of June. Additionally, a separate early-stage study expected to complete in November is looking at the program's second compound in healthy patients and a small cohort with psoriasis.
Lastly, Galapagos awaits Phase 3 ulcerative colitis data for an anti-inflammatory agent called filgotinib. The company already submitted the drug to European and United States regulators as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, with approval decisions expected in the coming months.
"Investors are very familiar with filgotinib and also '1690 in IPF. But the rest of the pipeline is still not so well understood or appreciated," van de Stolpe said, highlighting a communication challenge that meetings like the JPM conference can help address.
If approved, filgotinib would join a crowded market that not only includes blockbuster biologics such as Humira and Remicade, but also products from AbbVie, Eli Lilly and Pfizer that work similarly to Galapagos' new offering.
Galapagos and Gilead, however, say filgotinib can compete. Unlike the biologic medicines, it's taken orally, which patients tend to prefer. Its safety and efficacy data have also impressed Wall Street analysts; SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges, for example, modeled peak filgotinib sales of $3.7 billion after Phase 3 data for the drug were released.
"This is a very competitive space, we understand that," Gilead CEO Daniel O'Day told investors Monday at the J.P. Morgan conference. "When I look at the profile of filgotinib, a highly selective inhibitor, I think we have in our hands a best-in-class product. And now the question is, of course, even with a best-in-class product, how do you approach the market, the payers, the customers to be able to be successful."
AbbVie is likely to be an obstacle to that success, as many in the industry consider it the dominant player in immunology thanks to Humira and, increasingly, its new rheumatoid arthritis drug Rinvoq.
Galapagos, though, is responsible only for commercialization of its drugs in Europe. "It's up to Gilead to market the competing difference with filgotinib clearly to the physicians," van de Stolpe said.
As the companies prepare to launch filgotinib and advance other pipeline projects, van de Stolpe says he's making sure to stay connected to investors.
"We need to create excitement," he told BioPharma Dive in a Monday evening interview that, by his count, followed seven investor meetings. "And then tonight we've got of course the receptions and the dinners. It's part of the circus."