Arrowhead’s $3.7B J&J deal is done, CEO says, after ‘out of the blue’ NASH decision

Hours after Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals revealed that Johnson & Johnson is returning a clinical-stage NASH asset “out of the blue," CEO Chris Anzalone says that the entire $3.7 billion collaboration between the two is done. 

Anzalone told Fierce Biotech Wednesday in an interview that J&J's Janssen unit did not select any candidates beyond the NASH product stemming from a 2018 licensing collaboration. So with the NASH product handed back, the partnership is ending.

The confirmation that the October 2018 deal will wind down comes after Fierce Pharma reported earlier in February that J&J was revamping it's R&D operations, merging the infectious disease and vaccine units while cutting staff and assets. Arrowhead was left in limbo from that news, since the healthcare giant's hepatitis work was on the chopping block.

Arrowhead’s James Hamilton, M.D., chief of discovery and translational medicine, expressed confidence on an earnings call last week that the NASH agreement was still intact. But evidently, the program was not secure, with Arrowhead disclosing Wednesday that the NASH program is being returned.

While Anzalone says he’s happy for Arrowhead to push that asset forward alone, the news came “out of the blue.” 

“I think it frankly might have come out of the blue to part of Janssen as well, as these things do, when companies decide to shift priorities,” he said. 

Anzalone said Arrowhead has not received further guidance on whether or not the hepatitis B med will also be returned or if Janssen will out-license it to another company. 

Janssen and Arrowhead inked a licensing and collaboration deal in October 2018 worth $3.7 billion, much of which centered on the hepatitis B asset, then-called ARO-HBV. Arrowhead received $175 million in upfront cash plus $75 million in an equity investment, with $3.5 billion in biobucks waiting in the wings. A little less than half of the available biobucks—$1.6 billion—applied to the hepatitis program. Arrowhead also committed to using its RNAi platform for three additional targets, one of which blossomed into the NASH product that's now being returned. 

Should Janssen out-license the hep B program, Anzalone said that firm would “stand in Janssen’s shoes.” Arrowhead has not yet considered whether it will search for a new partner on the now-wholly owned NASH candidate. 

Even with the multi-billion dollar deal nearing its end, Anzalone emphasized that it’s water under the bridge with respect to future opportunities to partner with Janssen. 

A spokesperson for J&J did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Arrowhead still has a number of other partnerships with Big Pharma that are ongoing, including with Takeda, GSK and Amgen.