Novartis gives early Christmas presents for Conatus and Encore Vision

Novartis has struck two deals in the run-up to Christmas to bolster its NASH and ophthalmology work.

Wanting to get all of its Christmas shopping done early, Novartis has made two buys in the past 24 hours, striking a $50 million NASH licensing with microcap Conatus, and a buyout of eye drug biotech Encore Vision.   

First up, to Encore, that sees the Swiss major buy out the Fort Worth, Texas-based company for an undisclosed amount, gaining access to its lead investigational product EV06, a first-in-class topical treatment for presbyopia, which affects older patients’ ability to see things close up.

The early-to-midstage med recently had some positive data, showing in a phase 1/2 proof of concept trial a statistically significant difference to placebo in distant corrected near vision.

“There is a large need for innovative, effective and safe treatment options for people with presbyopia, and there is currently no disease-modifying treatment available at all,” said Vasant Narasimhan, global head of drug development and CMO of Novartis.

This comes as rumors swirl that Novartis may be looking to sell off its Alcon eye unit, only 6 years after buying it and moving into a diversified strategy, and also comes in the same month that it was hit with a clinical setback with one of its late-stage ophthalmic candidates.

Last week, its development partner Ophthotech said two phase 3 pivotal trials were a flop, after showing that adding their med Fovista (pegpleranib) with Novartis/Roche’s blockbuster eye drug Lucentis failed to be significantly better than using Lucentis alone in more than 1,200 patients when it came to improving visual acuity over one year.

This fuelled more speculation as to whether this may accelerate Novartis’ nascent plans to drop some of its ophthalmology work.

But its eye drug pipeline appears to be stable, as Narasimhan added: “Novartis confirms its leadership in ophthalmology by entering another new therapy area. The addition of this topical disease modifying treatment to our portfolio, if successful, will provide affected people with a new option to improve and maintain their vision and quality of life.”

And then to its deal with Conatus and NASH. It’s the area to be in, apparently, as Novartis adds another candidate to its own pipeline, and to the legion of biopharmas marching toward the fated fatty liver market—a market that could be worth tens of billions of dollars to those who can get it right.

So far, many have not got things quite right in testing, but Novartis this week gave a nice early Christmas present to Conatus in the form of a $50 million (also its market cap worth) licensing/collab deal for its NASH med emricasan, which promptly saw its shares jump 125% last night on the news.

More biobucks could also come, though details weren’t given, and Conatus has the option to co-commercialize emricasan in the U.S.

This fast-track tagged drug, in midstage testing, is a first-in-class, oral, pan-caspase inhibitor for the treatment of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) with advanced scarring and cirrhosis.

The deal could also be expanded into treating people in various stages of fatty liver disease, where no approved medicines currently exist.

Novartis has its own med, a farnesoid X receptor (FXR) agonist, in later stages of testing and as part of this collab, Conatus will conduct a number of phase 2b tests with emricasan in NASH.

“If concluded positively, Novartis would then conduct phase 3 studies of emricasan as a single treatment and start development of combination therapies with an FXR agonist,” it said in a statement.

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