Amgen bets $1B on BioVex's dual-mechanism cancer therapy

In a bold late-stage gamble, Amgen has agreed to pay $425 million in cash to license a promising cancer vaccine from Woburn, MA-based BioVex, a 2009 Fierce 15 company which migrated to the U.S. several years ago in search of better VC relations. And Amgen promised another $575 million in milestones, offering up to a billion dollars in total to capture new therapies that use two fists to punch against cancer.

OncoVex has a dual mechanism. It's an oncolytic--using a cancer-destroying virus modified from a cold sore virus designed to replicate in solid tumors, triggering cancer cell death--that also spurs the immune system to go in and tackle the cancer as well. The size of the upfront payment, increasingly rare these days, is an indication of just how close BioVex is to producing pivotal data.

"It's a call option on a late-stage, potential blockbuster drug for Amgen," Michael Yee, an analyst with RBC Capital markets, told Bloomberg. And Bloomberg noted that the deal may well signal Amgen's intention to strike more pacts focused on tumor treatments. For Amgen, the BioVex deal represents a rare opportunity to acquire late-stage technology that has the potential to make its mark on a broad range of cancers.

"The virus should be generally applicable in tumor settings," Roger Perlmutter, Amgen's executive vice president for R&D, tells FierceBiotech. And the therapy was extremely well tolerated. But just looking at the complete response data recorded by BioVex in Phase II is exciting. "Those tumor masses don't go away on their own. Something is happening there."

For now, says Perlmutter, the future of the program rests on completing the planned acquisition and then seeing what the first Phase III trial can tell them later this year about the therapy's efficacy. It stands to reason that the viral tactic BioVex adopted works well when there's less tumor mass involved, so launching studies to see how OncoVex works as a front-line therapy against newly detected tumors represents one of several research opportunities. For the near term, adds Perlmutter, Amgen plans to leave the facility and staff in Woburn and Oxford intact, so they can continue their late-stage work uninterrupted.

OncoVex is now in Phase III for metastatic melanoma as well as head and neck cancer. In a small mid-stage study the therapy demonstrated significant anti-tumor results that need to be reflected in the late-stage data. The biotech also has a second program focused on genital herpes.

- read the Amgen release
- here's the Bloomberg report