Boehringer Ingelheim has bought oncolytic virus startup ViraTherapeutics. The takeover is focused on vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) candidates Boehringer sees becoming key components of its efforts to gain ground in the immuno-oncology sector.
Germany’s Boehringer secured the option to acquire ViraTherapeutics two years ago. That original deal gave Boehringer the chance to work with and potentially buy out ViraTherapeutics in return for payment commitments that could ultimately total €210 million.
At that time, Boehringer looked set to decide whether to buy ViraTherapeutics after getting a look at phase 1 data on the lead oncolytic virus, VSV-GP. However, Boehringer has pulled the trigger early and swallowed up ViraTherapeutics on the strength of preclinical data on VSV-GP. In between gaining and taking up its option, Boehringer expanded its deal with ViraTherapeutics to cover a second drug.
Boehringer has dialled up its commitment to ViraTherapeutics’ platform and pipeline as evidence of their potential has accrued. Like all oncolytic viruses, ViraTherapeutics’ candidates are designed to both directly kill cancer cells and trigger immune attacks. The difference, as ViraTherapeutics sees it, rests on its choice of virus. ViraTherapeutics thinks VSV is the perfect weapon, in part because there is evidence that people neither have nor will develop immunity to the virus.
The mechanism of action of oncolytic viruses is in keeping with Boehringer’s strategy for making up lost ground in cancer, which rests on the combination of immuno-oncology approaches and tumor cell-directed treatments.
“Our approach is rooted in transforming ‘cold’ tumors—or immunologically inactive tumors that are not responsive to the checkpoint blockers—to ‘hot‘ tumors, those that are most susceptible to immune system attack,” Boehringer’s Michel Pairet said in a statement.
The potential for oncolytic viruses to fulfill that function and therefore increase and broaden the effectiveness of checkpoint inhibitors has returned the modality to the spotlight. Over the past year, Johnson & Johnson has paid $140 million to buy BeneVir Biopharm, Merck has struck a $394 million deal for Viralytics and AbbVie has secured an option on on three Turnstone Biologics’ assets.