In the requisite flood of dealmaking that marks day one of San Francisco's annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, high-profile biotechs Juno Therapeutics and Moderna Therapeutics widened their R&D operations, while some smaller players signed deals and roped in cash to keep their projects moving.
• Juno ($JUNO), at work on immunotherapies for cancer, acquired a Harvard spinout focused on sequencing single cells in a deal worth about $125 million. Juno's platform uses a patient's own T cells to fight malignancies, extracting and re-engineering them to hone in on tumors. To date, Juno's most promising results have come from CD19, an antigen closely related to blood cancer. But in acquiring Harvard's AbVitro, the Seattle company is hoping to broaden its approach. AbVitro's technology allows scientists to pick apart T cells and quickly identify potential targets for therapy, Juno said, and that could accelerate the company's efforts to develop cell treatments for a wider variety of cancer types. Under the agreement, Juno is paying $78 million and about 1.3 million shares to get its hands on AbVitro. Celgene ($CELG), which is partnered on Juno's so-called CAR-T project, has agreed to license some of the AbVitro technology and will have the option to buy into certain assets that grow out of the buyout. More
• Moderna, which has turned heads around biotech with nearly $1 billion in venture and partnering cash, expanded its relationship with Big Pharma partners AstraZeneca ($AZN) and Merck ($MRK) through a pair of deals. AstraZeneca was the company's first major co-signer, laying out $240 million in 2013 to collaborate on therapies for cardiovascular, metabolic and kidney diseases. Now the U.K. drugmaker is expanding its focus to immuno-oncology, partnering up on two Moderna-discovered treatments now in preclinical development. The goal is to push each program into human trials, at which point AstraZeneca will take over development duties. The two companies will share the costs of late-stage research and split any eventual profits down the middle, Moderna said. Separately, Merck, which first bought into Moderna's promise in a $100 million deal last year, is now licensing a vaccine candidate targeting an undisclosed virus. Moderna isn't disclosing financial details tied to either agreement. The company's core technology uses messenger RNA (mRNA) to spur the production of human proteins within patient cells, creating what the company describes as an in vivo factory for targeted therapies, and the proposition has helped it attract big-name partners and high-dollar funding rounds since emerging from stealth mode in 2013. Moderna has said it plans to finally begin human trials this year for some of its pipeline assets, including candidates licensed to Merck and AstraZeneca. Read the AstraZeneca announcement | Here's the Merck statement
• San Diego drug developer BioAtla, fresh off a billion-dollar partnership with Pfizer ($PFE), signed a deal to raise $45 million and fund its internal projects. Under the agreement, Global BIO Impact Fund will buy $15 million in BioAtla equity by the end of this month and add $30 million in direct funding by April, acquiring some rights to four of the company's programs. BioAtla's work focuses on conditionally active biologics, or CABs, which are antibodies that can be switched on in the presence of certain antigens. The CAB technology attracted China's Beijing Sinobioway, which partnered up with BioAtla last May, and Pfizer, which in December signed an agreement worth up to $1 billion to use BioAtla's technology to make antibody-drug conjugates. Last year, BioAtla raised $30 million in equity from an undisclosed group of Chinese investors. The company, founded in 2007, operates out of San Diego with labs in Beijing. More
• Cambridge, U.K.'s F-Star signed a deal with AbbVie ($ABBV) to co-develop some antibodies directed against cancer. Without disclosing financial details, F-Star said the deal tasks it with engineering mix-and-match antibody fragments against two immuno-oncology targets, and AbbVie is on board to push those programs into development. F-Star's fragment technology, dubbed Fcab, can be used to make multiple bispecific antibodies from a single fragment, and the platform's promise has attracted similar partnerships with Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), Merck KGaA and Boehringer Ingelheim. More