AbbVie buys Galapagos’ cystic fibrosis assets despite weak data

C2 corrector GLPG2737 had no effect on CFTR activity. (AbbVie)

AbbVie has acquired Galapagos’ cystic fibrosis pipeline for $45 million (€39 million) upfront. The deal follows two underwhelming clinical trial readouts that suggested the drugs may struggle to compete with Vertex’s more advanced pipeline prospects.

When the first of the underwhelming data drops landed in June, AbbVie turned down the chance to advance one of the triple combination therapies and triggered a review of the partnership. AbbVie’s action suggested Galapagos may take full control of the partnership. But ultimately the opposite has happened, despite data on the pipeline deteriorating further still in the interim.

AbbVie has emerged from the negotiations $45 million worse off but with the rights to the full cystic fibrosis pipeline. As the drugs advance, AbbVie could payout up to $200 million less, significantly less than the $600 million set out in the 2016 agreement. The royalty rate has dropped, too.

The inking of the trimmed-down deal follows a period in which clinical data have raised doubts about the ability of Galapagos’ cystic fibrosis pipeline to pose a threat to Vertex. The clinical data relate to GLPG2737, a C2 corrector that was expected to form one part of a triple combination capable of bringing Kalydeco-level efficacy to most cystic fibrosis patients.

In June, a small study linked the addition of GLPG2737 to Vertex’s Orkambi to a 3.4% change in the ppFEV1 measure of lung function. The change fell well short of the numbers seen in Vertex’s trials. 

Now, Galapagos has revealed GLPG2737 fared even worse when added to its GLPG2451-GLPG2222 double combination. Having administered the double combination for two weeks, Galapagos added GLPG2737 to the regimen for the third and fourth weeks. The third drug had no effect on CFTR activity. The double combination also underwhelmed with a 3% ppFEV1 increase over the first two weeks of the trial, although that may partly be explained by the low doses used. 

Even with that caveat, the data are unlikely to cause any sleepless nights at Vertex, which looks set to get to market first and have an efficacy advantage. That raises the question of how AbbVie plans to carve out a piece of the cystic fibrosis market.

There are indications that the answer will entail falling still further behind Vertex in an attempt to get a combination that can compete on efficacy. Galapagos said the next part of the GLPG2737 trial that read out this week is on hold pending the analysis of the full dataset from part one. And AbbVie talked up the prospect of its “expertise in medicinal chemistry and small-molecule drug discovery” providing a boost to the acquired cystic fibrosis portfolio.

The implication that AbbVie will perform those tasks better than Galapagos has done closes out a testy relationship. AbbVie jilted Galapagos in 2015, choosing to take its own JAK1 drug forward rather than license filgotinib. Later, a Dutch newspaper reported that Galapagos CEO Onno van de Stolpe blamed AbbVie for delays in cystic fibrosis and felt it would advance as well unpartnered.

AbbVie’s June decision not to progress a cystic fibrosis drug appears to have done little to improve the situation. Jefferies analyst Peter Welford expressed a belief the decision “triggered a breakdown in the relationship” in a note to investors.