- Incyte will pay $70 million upfront to buy Villaris Therapeutics, a startup working on an experimental drug for the skin disease vitiligo, the companies announced Monday. It’s Incyte’s first whole company acquisition.
- Villaris, which was launched by life sciences investment firm Medicxi, has an antibody drug called auremolimab in preclinical studies, and expects to enter human trials next year. Incyte could owe Villaris shareholders nearly $1.4 billion in additional payments if the drug hits various development milestones and sales targets.
- The deal is another step in Incyte’s plan to branch out into dermatology. The Wilmington, Del.-based company is best known for the graft-versus-host disease drug Jakafi, but has also developed a version of the medicine that the Food and Drug Administration has cleared for two skin conditions, including vitiligo.
Few treatments are available to treat vitiligo, which causes patches of skin discoloration. But Incyte was successful in developing the active ingredient in Jakafi, ruxolitinib, into a topical cream sold under the brand name Opzelura.
Opzelura is now cleared to treat the most common form of vitiligo, and has shown in testing it can repigment the skin of people with the disease. The drug isn’t a cure, however, and it’s not clear how pigmentation may change if patients stop taking the drug, or take it less frequently.
Villaris Therapeutics, based in Cary, N.C., has been developing a treatment that’s meant to last longer. Called auremolimab, it’s an experimental antibody that targets and depletes levels of certain types of T cells that retain “autoimmune memory” of the location of white spots in the skin.
Villaris’ drug does so by targeting an inflammatory protein receptor called IL-15, which helps regulate those T cells.
“We want to be a servant to patients in this space, so in addition to Opzelura, we want to bring them other therapies that bring them more long-term benefits,” said Steven Stein, senior director for translational sciences at Incyte, in an interview.
Stein envisions Villaris’ drug as part of a combination regimen, with Opzelura resolving depigmentation and auremolimab preventing skin patches from reappearing.
Though Incyte has long focused on graft-versus-host disease and on cancer, the company has more recently turned its attention to drugs for skin diseases. An Eli Lilly drug it discovered and helped develop, Olumiant, is now approved to treat atopic dermatitis and alopecia areata. Along with vitiligo, Opzelura is also approved for atopic dermatitis, or eczema.
Additionally, Incyte is developing experimental drugs for chronic hand eczema and hidradenitis suppurativa, or lumps that form under the skin, Stein said. One treatment, known as povorcitinib, is in Phase 2 testing.
“It is difficult to read too much into whether this deal reflects growing confidence in the vitiligo launch (as it was likely in the works for some time), but it likely does reflect the company's commitment to dermatology,” wrote Brian Abrahams, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, in a note to clients.
The acquisition adds a candidate that “complement[s]” the company’s existing portfolio in vitiligo, wrote Cowen analyst Marc Frahm. But the drug could have some ground to make up. Amgen has an IL-15 blocker called AMG-714 in a Phase 2 trial for vitiligo, Frahm wrote.
Incyte’s stock price closed trading Monday up just over 3%.