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J&J pays $140m upfront for cancer-busting virus firm BeneVir

The total value of the deal could go above $1bn if the biotech’s candidates perform well

J&J

Johnson & Johnson’s initial push into immuno-oncology is gathering pace with an agreement to acquire BeneVir Biopharm and a portfolio of oncolytic viruses designed to infect and destroy tumour cells.

The pharma group’s Janssen Biotech subsidiary is paying $140m upfront for BeneVir, although the total value of the deal could go above $1bn if the biotech’s pipeline of therapies - currently all at the preclinical stage - perform as hoped in further development.

So far only one oncolytic virus therapy has been approved for use in patients. Amgen’s Imlygic (talimogene laherparepvec) has been approved in Europe and the US since 2015 for use in melanoma that has recurred after surgery, but sales have been small.

That is partly because of the impressive efficacy seen with checkpoint inhibitor drugs like Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo (nivolumab) and Merck & Co’s Keytruda (pembrolizumab) in this form of skin cancer, but also because it has to be injected directly into tumours rather than systemically, increasing the complexity of treatment.

Meanwhile, another early player - Oncolytics Biotech - has struggled to bring its Reolysin candidate through development because of mixed results in clinical trials. A key issue holding back these two pathfinder drugs is that their development started long before the current wave of immuno-oncology drugs became available, and it is now widely thought that the promise of oncolytic viruses will come to fruition when they are used in combination with other cancer immunotherapies.

J&J and other big pharma companies are clearly not put off by the challenges experienced by the early oncolytic virus developers, with a string of deals in the last few years to gain access to this type of technology by AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Boehringer Ingelheim, Pfizer and others.

The head of cancer R&D at J&J, Peter Lebowitz, says the approach has “exciting potential in the treatment of solid tumours through the priming and augmenting of an anti-tumour immune response”, and the intention is clearly to test BeneVir’s candidates both alone and in combination with other drugs. The biotech’s website indicates that its oncolytic viruses lend themselves to co-administration with immune checkpoint inhibitors.

J&J has a long heritage in cancer therapy but its push into immuno-oncology is a little behind other players in the category. Last year it gave a presentation to highlight its presence in the category, pointing to cancer vaccines, T cell checkpoint inhibitor and T cell redirection drugs that are mainly in preclinical or early clinical development.

One exception is J&J’s anti-CD38 drug Darzalex (daratumumab), which is already approved for multiple myeloma but according to the company has potential in other cancers thanks to an anti-immunosuppressive mechanism that it says could help mobilise T cell responses to tumours.

After the acquisition goes through, BeneVir will maintain its R&D operations in Maryland, US, and become part of the Janssen Oncology division. The deal is expected to complete before the end of June.

Article by
Phil Taylor

3rd May 2018

From: Sales

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