Novartis is building out its pipeline of experimental brain drugs, announcing Thursday plans to acquire a privately held biotech focused on neuroscience.
For $210 million up front, and as much as $560 million in milestone payments, Novartis will take control of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Cadent Therapeutics and its three clinical-stage drugs. The companies expect their deal to close early next year.
Novartis already had access to one of the drugs, known as MIJ821, because of a licensing agreement with Luc Therapeutics, the precursor company to Cadent. Thursday's acquisition would square away the milestone and royalty commitments tied to that program, which is aimed at treatment-resistant depression. Cadent's two other drugs, CAD-9303 and CAD-1883, have been respectively studied in schizophrenia and movement disorders.
The deal comes at a time when neuroscience appears to be regaining some traction with pharmaceutical firms and their investors, which had pulled back en masse due to a series of drug failures. In the last couple years, Merck & Co. licensed a pair of neurodegenerative drugs, AbbVie went searching for Parkinson's treatments, and a neurology biotech that spun out from Pfizer raised nearly half a billion dollars by merging with a blank check company.
Novartis has remained more active in neuroscience than many of its big pharma peers. Among its marketed products are Gilenya, a blockbuster treatment for multiple sclerosis, Mayzent, a newer therapy for MS, and Zolgensma, a genetic medicine for a rare neuromuscular disease. Novartis also helps Amgen develop and sell the migraine medication Aimovig.
On the experimental side, Novartis is targeting a range of neurological conditions, from Huntington's disease to ALS to rare illnesses. The list would grow larger with Cadent's drugs onboard.
"The area is challenging, but the unmet need is really huge," Gopi Shanker, the interim co-head of neuroscience at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, said in an interview with BioPharma Dive. "So this is kind of a reiteration of our commitment to patients suffering from psychiatric and neurological diseases."
Cadent's drugs are so-called allosteric modulators, meaning they amplify or stifle what certain proteins do. MIJ-821 and CAD-9303, for example, have opposite effects on a protein that serves an important role in memory and brain function. The drugs now give Novartis a foothold in schizophrenia and a deeper presence in movement disorders.
Shanker notes that, in schizophrenia, the current standard-of-care antipsychotics only address symptoms like delusions and hallucinations. But there are other symptoms, including cognitive impairment as well as "negative" symptoms like social withdrawal and inability to feel pleasure, which have fewer treatment options. The hope is that CAD-9303 can help on that front.
"Mechanistically, CAD-9303 is well positioned to address these two groups of symptoms," Shanker said. "We're hoping that, together with antipsychotics, this drug can really bring transformative benefit for patients. And so that's what we'd have to demonstrate in the clinical trials."
CAD-1883, meanwhile, regulates activity in the cerebellum and has been studied in spinocerebellar ataxias and essential tremor — two diseases that have been part of multibillion-dollar deals in recent years. Shanker said the drug could be useful in a variety of movement disorders, and that Novartis will decide which of those disorders to go after once the acquisition closes.
If completed, the deal would bring an end to a winding journey for Cadent.
The company was originally formed in 2010 as Mnemosyne Pharmaceuticals. But by 2015, it had changed its name to Luc Therapeutics and moved to Cambridge to focus on developing psychiatric drugs. The same year saw Luc sell that exclusive license for MIJ-821 to Novartis.
Then in 2017, Luc acquired Ataxion, an Atlas Venture-backed biotech, and the combination gave rise to Cadent.
The following year, Cadent raised $40 million in a Series B financing round led by Cowen Healthcare Investments and Atlas Venture, with participation from several other groups, including the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research.