J&J in New Year deal mania, takes on NASH candidate with biotech buyout option

The deals coming out of its so-called Innovation unit now totals over 300, though some analysts want it to beef up its late-stage pipeline

As part of its collab strategy that has seen it strike hundreds of deals over the past few years, Johnson & Johnson has added 15 new deals to its list, now totaling over 300, as it also gets its teeth into the lucrative NASH R&D race.

Coming out of its ‘Johnson & Johnson Innovation’ unit, the company has struck deals across biotech, med dev and digital tech, but one of the standout deals is with Bird Rock Bio.

No money terms have been given either in its statement or to FierceBiotech when asked for any of the 15 deals, but Janssen says it has signed a collab pact with the U.S. biotech, formerly known as RuiYi, for its early-stage fatty liver candidate (or NASH) namacizumab.

The med, a Cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1), is currently in phase 1 and will see the Big Pharma work with it to read-out. If it likes what it sees, the company said it holds the right to buyout the biotech, and also marks Janssen’s first foray into NASH.

Many others are already ahead in the race to be the first to market a new drug in this area, which could yield billions in annual sales, as it targets a form of fatty liver disease caused by obesity, something which hits millions of Americans and is set to become the leading cause of liver transplants in the coming decades.

Being just phase 1, while others are further down the development line, puts Janssen at the back of the queue, but hopes it will differentiate itself with its CB1 candidate.

The company tells me: “While this is our first venture specifically targeting NASH, we see NASH as a piece of the larger metabolic disease area in which we have a great deal of experience and interest.

“Our approach is to bring forward innovative therapies that address the basic pathways of disease. CB1 is a particularly attractive drug target for NASH due to its potential to intercept the three key pathologies of the disease—steatosis, inflammation, and fibrosis.

“The work of Bird Rock Bio with namacizumab, a first-in-class negative allosteric modulating antibody to CB1, is the kind of innovation that drives differentiation and the potential to intercept and treat this important disease. CB1 also shows potential as a target in diabetic kidney disease, another area of great unmet medical need in which we have interest.”

Bird Rock Bio is also working on a rheumatoid arthritis drug it picked up off arGEN-X.

And it doesn’t stop there. Janssen also announced that it was bumping up its work on malaria, having been in the game already for a good few years (including its vaccine work with GlaxoSmithKline), but has today penned a new collab with Medicines for Malaria Venture.

The deal, a product development partnership for malaria drug research, development and access, will see Janssen research and develop long-acting injectable anti-malarial agents.

This comes with the option to work out an exclusive license to the program as it progresses through clinical proof of concept, the company said in a statement.

The Big Pharma told FierceBiotech: “The new collaboration with Medicines for Malaria Ventures provides a unique opportunity to combine the proven malaria drug discovery and development skills of MMV with Janssen’s expertise in developing long-acting injectable formulations. 

“The recognized benefits of LAI include less frequent drug administration for prophylaxis and therapy, which is of significant value for patients living in resource limited settings that makes reliable access to essential medicines difficult.”

It’s also signed another RNA deal, separate from the ones inked with Ionis and Arcturus Therapeutics, with Synthetic Genomics to develop a ribonucleic acid (RNA) technology that enables a tuneable, multigenic approach to elicit desired antigen expression and immune response for a variety of applications.

“The aim of this technology is to enable the development of RNA-based therapies and vaccines that enhance and fine tune immune response against specific infectious diseases and cancer”, the Big Pharma says, although more details were not given.

Among its other deals includes a pact with Aspect Biosystems on a 3D-printed knee; a deal with Amorsa Therapeutics on creating quicker acting anti-depressants; and combating cataracts through a licensing agreement with the University of Massachusetts to intercept cataracts and/or presbyopia.

Looking at the bigger picture, and at its Innovation unit which has now notched more 300 of these types of deals since its creation and the now 7 JLABS incubators for early life science companies, Janssen says it believes it collab strategy works.

“Our strategy for J&J Innovation has always fundamentally been based on the concept that a great idea can come from anywhere and we are agnostic to whether the idea comes from inside or outside of our company,” the company tells me.

“This J&J umbrella of resources has been established and is growing to help healthcare entrepreneurs/innovators advance promising science and technologies. Once we find a promising technology, we work with the company or institution to evaluate what would be most beneficial for the advancement of the technology.

“This could include incubation through JLABS, but also VC funding (JJDC), collaboration (Innovation Centers or Janssen Business Development) or other resources.”

Analysts at Jefferies believe that M&A will be a “key driver for growth” for J&J this year, according to the analyst’s note out this morning.

“Whilst this should ultimately drive better growth, we believe that investors will not reward the shares for this initially,” the firm says.

It believes the Big Pharma is focusing a bit too much on the early-stage, as it adds: “The pipeline may offer some bright spots, though the scale of the late-stage pipeline remains too small in our view, with few key assets to drive more positive investor sentiment.”

Jefferies notes that the company is sitting on around a $40 billion cash pile, something that “gives them significant optionality for M&A,” such as the rumored potential $30 billion acquisition of Actelion.