After having invested in Morphic Therapeutic’s A and B rounds, AbbVie is pulling the trigger on an R&D deal. The drugmaker is ponying up $100 million for the option to exclusively license multiple programs from Morphic that target fibrotic diseases.
Morphic’s pipeline consists of oral integrin inhibitors—integrin being a cell surface receptor found on most cells. Integrin signaling is involved in many cellular functions and abnormal signaling has been implicated in fibrosis, autoimmune diseases and immuno-oncology.
Under the agreement, Morphic will carry out R&D work on its fibrosis drugs through IND-enabling studies. At that point, AbbVie will be able to decide for each compound whether it will pay a license fee and then pick up responsibility for the global development and commercialization of the drug. Morphic could also bag clinical and commercial milestone payments and royalties for each drug that AbbVie takes forward.
Morphic also retains the option to share development costs with AbbVie on liver fibrosis indications, in exchange for “enhanced royalties.”
“Those liver markets are big,” said Morphic CEO Praveen Tipirneni, M.D. “With NASH, cirrhotic liver and so on ... we obviously had to have something pretty special to negotiate those kinds of rights.”
Integrin antagonists, or inhibitors, are not a new class. However, they have only seen success as injectable or intravenous drugs, not as oral therapies. But Morphic has a not-so-secret weapon on its side.
The company’s scientific founder, Tim Springer, has put in decades of work on integrins—he discovered the first subfamily of integrins and founded the biotech LeukoSite in 1993. LeukoSite was snapped up by Millennium, which was in turn acquired by Takeda. The Takeda drug Entyvio (vedolizumab), approved in 2014 for ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s is an antibody to integrin α4β7 that had been discovered at LeukoSite.
Because injectable integrin blockers worked so well, several pharma companies tried to create an oral version, which would be preferable for treating chronic disease, Tipirneni said.
Six different pharmas took it into phase 3, but they all failed, he said. It turned out the drugs failed not just by falling short of placebo—they actually made people’s disease worse.
To succeed where others had failed, Springer went back to the lab.
He discovered that the integrin receptor has a number of different states and found that the oral drugs were inducing an activating state rather than a blocking state in the receptors. So instead of inhibiting integrin and doing what the drugs were designed to do, they actually did the opposite.
When he figured out how to combat that, Springer went to Polaris Partners and Morphic was born. Springer, Polaris, Schrödinger and ShangPharma Investment Group created Morphic in 2015. The company reeled in $51.5 million in series A funding the next year and another $80 million in its B round in September this year. It counts Omega Funds, Novo Holdings, Invus and EcoR1 Capital, among its backers.