- Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk will spend $1.1 billion to acquire Forma Therapeutics, a 15-year-old biotechnology company that formed to discover cancer medicines but now has an experimental drug in late-stage testing for treating sickle cell disease.
- Under the terms of the deal announced Thursday, Novo will pay $20 per share to buy Forma, equaling their value when the smaller biotech first sold shares on the Nasdaq stock exchange in 2020 but well below their peak price of nearly $50 apiece.
- The deal reflects drugmakers’ continuing interest in sickle cell disease and related rare blood disorders. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved Bluebird bio’s gene therapy Zynteglo, which treats the blood disease beta thalassemia, a decision that was preceded by Pfizer’s $5.4 buyout of a sickle cell drug developer called Global Blood Therapeutics.
Known primarily as a seller of insulin and other drugs to control blood sugar in diabetics, Novo Nordisk also has a presence in rare blood diseases. It markets five products for people with hemophilia and other bleeding disorders, has an experimental hemophilia drug in late-stage trials and has previously licensed another drug for sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia.
The company was also interested in acquiring rare blood disease drugmaker Ablynx before losing out in a bidding war with Sanofi.
In its early days, Forma’s focus was in oncology, a research area it continues to explore with drugs for prostate cancer and BRCA-mutated tumors. The company raised hundreds of millions of dollars privately, due in large part to a string of collaborations that included a lucrative, long-running alliance with Celgene. That relationship ended when Celgene was acquired by Bristol Myers Squibb, however.
Forma’s greatest progress since has been in sickle cell disease, where a drug called etavopivat has advanced to a Phase 2/3 clinical trial.
“By adding Forma’s differentiated approach to address unmet needs for patients, we are taking a step forward in enhancing our sickle cell disease pipeline,” Ludovic Helfgott, Novo Nordisk’s executive vice president and head of rare diseases, said in a statement.
The deal for Forma is Novo’s second major acquisition in the past 12 months, a notable uptick in dealmaking activity for a company that infrequently buys other biotech firms. In November 2021, Novo spent $3.3 billion to acquire RNA drug specialist Dicerna Pharmaceuticals.
Etavopivat works by activating an enzyme that is thought to enable diseased red blood cells to carry more oxygen, thereby reducing the painful episodes caused by sickled cells clumping together and blocking blood flow.
A similarly acting drug called Pyrukynd developed by Agios Pharmaceuticals has already been approved, although it is used to treat hemolytic anemia in adults with pyruvate kinase deficiency. Agios has started clinical trials in sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia, making it a potential rival to etavopivat in the future. Agios shares rose by 15% in Thursday morning trading.
Shares of Fulcrum Therapeutics, which is also developing a sickle cell drug, climbed by about 13%.
Sickle cell disease, which affects primarily people of African and Mediterranean descent, has for years had very few treatments. A drug called hydroxyurea was first tested in patients in the 1980s, and an oral powder called Endari gained approval in 2017.
But recently patients have gained more options with the Food and Drug Administration’s approvals of Novartis’ Adakveo and Global Blood’s Oxbryta in 2019.
Global Blood reported $55 million in sales for Oxbryta in the first quarter of 2022, an amount that helped persuade Pfizer to hand over $5.4 billion to acquire the company in competitive negotiations that involved one other unnamed company and, reportedly, Johnson and Johnson.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the condition for which Pyrukynd is approved in the U.S.