- Johnson & Johnson's pharma unit Janssen said Wednesday it will acquire private biotech BeneVir Biopharm in a deal potentially worth just over $1 billion, further expanding its research footprint in immuno-oncology.
- Fittingly for Benevir's preclinical pipeline, much of the deal is back-ended: Janssen will pay $140 million upfront, while lining up milestone payments totaling $900 million.
- The deal is expected to close in the second quarter. Once final, Benevir will become part of Janssen's oncology unit and continue its research activities into oncolytic viruses in solid tumors.
Investment has poured into the fast-growing immuno-oncology field in recent years, catalyzed by the clinical and commercial success of checkpoint inhibitors like Merck & Co.'s Keytruda (pembrolizumab). Surging interest has broadened research efforts around other types of immunotherapies, such as oncolytic viruses.
Using viruses to kill cancer cells has drawn the interest of scientists since the late 1800s, but research efforts began more in earnest in the 1960s and then again in the 1990s. Originally envisioned as a way to directly kill cancer cells, oncolytic viruses can also act to prime and augment an immune response against tumors. A lack of success, however, meant that the field went quiet.
Research has now revived, spurred by an increasing understanding of how to create tumor-specific viruses. In 2015, Amgen's Imlygic (talimogene laherparepvec) became the first oncolytic virus approved in the U.S., winning an OK from the Food and Drug Administration as a monotherapy for melanoma. A genetically modified herpes simplex virus type 1, Imlygic replicates inside melanoma cells and releases GM-CSF, which triggers the immune response against the tumor cells.
While Imlygic remains the most notable example, the pipeline of oncolytic viruses in development has broadened. An analysis by the Cancer Research Institute, published in December in the Annals of Oncology, counted 164 oncolytic viruses in preclinical and clinical development.
Janssen's acquisition gives the pharma access to BeneVir's T-Stealth technology platform, which engineers oncolytic viruses to evade the immune system's barriers. Janssen plans to advance development of BeneVir's preclinical candidates both as monotherapies and in combination to treat solid tumors, such as lung, prostate and colorectcal cancers.
BeneVir's technology will complement Janssen's in-house immuno-oncology research, which is currently focused on novel immunotherapies and combinations. Most recently, Janssen inked a $350 million deal with China-based Nanjing Legend Biotech for partial rights to the biotech's CAR-T candidate for multiple myeloma.
BeneVir is a portfolio company of HC2 Holdings, which owns around 76% of the biotech's equity following a 2014 investment.
Janssen's deal follows Merck & Co.'s near-$400 million buyout of Australian oncolytic virus developer Viralytics in late February.