AbbVie pens third oncology tie-up this week

AbbVie ($ABBV) has been making big moves into cancer for the past two years--but the U.S. Humira giant has now really ramped up the early-stage oncology deal spree after signing its third collaboration in as many days.

In its latest deal, AbbVie will pay $30 million upfront to San Francisco, CA-based biotech CytomX Therapeutics to co-develop a Probody drug conjugate against CD71--with CytomX leading preclinical and early clinical development. CytomX is in-line for a further $470 million should it hit all of its clinical and regulatory milestones.

Under the deal, AbbVie will lead global commercial activities with CytomX able to receive a profit share in the U.S., and double-digit royalties on sales outside of the country.  The small biotech also retains an option to co-promote the drug in the U.S.

The drug, currently in the preclinical stage, is designed to attack both solid and blood cancers by targeting transferrin receptor 1 (also known as CD71), but is believed to be able to help attack the tumor without damaging healthy tissue--something that typically causes major side effects in traditional cancer therapies.

Under the collab, AbbVie can also use Probody drug conjugates for two additional and as yet undisclosed targets.  Should AbbVie take up this option, CytomX could also gain a further windfall from any resulting products. 

The biotech is adding AbbVie to its list of pharma parnters for its platform, which currently include Pfizer ($PFE), Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and ImmunoGen. 

The U.S. pharma has had a busy deal-making week. Earlier this week, it signed a pact worth more than $685 million for another preclinical target from argenx under a similar deal structure set out with CytomX.

The argenx agreement is focused on its ARGX-115 immuno-oncology target--which could potentially be active against all cancers. And after that it also signed a 5-year collaboration with the University of Chicago to help speed up its cancer drug discovery programs, and took out an option to license certain UC discoveries made under the pact.

The drugmaker made its largest cancer move last year with the $21 billion buyout of Pharmacyclics--and is also rumored to be seeking a major oncology deal with German private pharma Boehringer. Both companies have been short on marketed cancer meds, and AbbVie has been under pressure from analysts to wean itself off the $14 billion sales from its ageing autoimmune drug Humira, which is set for biosimilar competition from next year.

Cancer has proved a strong growth driver but the company had been a little behind the times, with its U.S. rivals Bristol  and Merck ($MRK) reaping the benefits of their new immuno-oncology meds, with Roche ($RHHBY) and AstraZeneca ($AZN) also looking to get in on the potentially $35 billion PD1/PD-L1 market.

The Pharmacyclics buy has helped get AbbVie deeper into the cancer space as it lead drug, the blood cancer pill Imbruvica, could achieve annual peak sales of as much as $6 billion. The company also has a co-marketing deal in place with Roche for another blood cancer drug, venetoclax. AbbVie is clearly playing the long game with this week’s deals, and will be hoping for blockbuster sales in the next decade.

“We believe that the Probody platform provides a differentiated opportunity to combine with our strength in antibody drug conjugates,” said Steve Davidsen, VP of oncology drug discovery at AbbVie.

“We are encouraged by the promising preclinical data that CytomX has generated for their Probody drug conjugate programs to-date and look forward to working closely with their team. This collaboration will enable us to expand our innovative pipeline in antibody drug conjugates and leverage our strength in that area to previously unexplored targets.”

Probody therapeutics are designed to remain inactive until they are activated by proteases in the tumor microenvironment. As a result, Probody therapeutics bind selectively to tumors and are designed to avoid binding to healthy tissue, which should make treatment safer.

The biotech presented data on its Probody therapeutics April 19 at the American Association for Cancer Research’s conference in New Orleans.

Tests showed the anti-CD71 drug was effective against many different types of tumor cells, and cynomolgus monkeys showed no adverse effects after prolonged exposure, Cowen & Co. analyst Boris Peaker said in a note to clients.

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