- Gilead has agreed to pay $300 million to access at least one experimental program from a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company that's trying to treat difficult cancers by harnessing a type of immune system defense called "natural killer" cells.
- The deal between Gilead and Dragonfly Therapeutics, announced Monday, centers on an immunotherapy that targets a protein found on cancer cells. This protein promotes tumor growth and, according to Gilead, is associated with poor outcomes in several cancers, including breast, pancreatic and non-small cell lung. The companies said an application that could usher Dragonfly's program into human testing is on track to be filed in the first half of next year.
- Deal terms hold that Gilead can choose to exclusively license other programs from Dragonfly once certain preclinical activities are completed. Should it decide to opt in, Dragonfly would be further compensated. The biotech is also eligible to receive additional payments if its programs hit specific milestones.
Gilead, best known for its work against viruses, has been on a yearslong campaign to cement itself as a leading maker of cancer treatments.
The journey has been an expensive one. Gilead shelled out $12 billion on the cell therapy developer Kite Pharma in 2017. Then in 2020, it spent more than $27 billion on acquisitions and partnerships meant to further energize its oncology ambitions.
Though executives continue to defend this push, there have been challenges. Gilead's cell therapy business, for example, has grown slower than some investors had hoped, and the company ultimately acknowledged the assets acquired in the Kite deal weren't as valuable as it once thought.
Gilead also recently faced a setback with an experimental cancer therapy that it secured through a $5 billion purchase of the Californian biotech Forty Seven. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration suspended a majority of the clinical trials testing the therapy, named magrolimab, after researchers observed an imbalance in "suspected, unexpected serious adverse reactions" among certain patients treated with it. The agency has since reviewed the safety data and cleared Gilead to restart its studies.
Overall, cancer drugs still account for a small fraction of Gilead's business. Of the $27.3 billion in revenue the company recorded last year, just under $900 million came from its cell therapy products. Another $380 million came from Trodelvy, a breast cancer drug that served as the centerpiece in Gilead's largest ever acquisition — the $21 billion takeout of Immunomedics.
Gilead's latest bet in cancer is on Dragonfly's immunotherapies.
The company isn't alone in seeing promise in Dragonfly's work. The biotech has deals in place with AbbVie, Merck & Co. and Bristol Myers Squibb, which in 2020 agreed to pay nearly half a billion dollars to license one of Dragonfly's experimental drugs. That treatment is a modified version of a protein which has become an attractive target for cancer drug developers since it regulates immune cells, including natural killer cells.
The program Gilead licensed goes after a different protein that's overexpressed on various cancer cells. In a statement, Gilead noted how medicines that engage natural killer cells, like Dragonfly's is designed to do, hold the potential to treat inflammatory diseases and an array of cancers — including those resistant to "checkpoint" therapies, a class of drugs that includes blockbusters like Merck's Keytruda and Bristol Myers' Opdivo.