China biotech Laekna snaps up Novartis PD-L1 cancer therapy

While all the rage seems to be focused on cell and gene therapies these days, Shanghai-based biotech Laekna Therapeutics still believes in the power of checkpoint inhibitors.

And why not, with Merck’s Keytruda powering through major sales records? The company wants a piece of the action and has penned a new deal with Swiss major Novartis to develop its phase 1 anti-PD-L1 antibody known as FAZ053.

Laekna says the plan now is to start trials on combo therapies (a favorite among PD-1 and PD-L1 drugs) across a range of cancers, though exact details were not shared on targets.

“With this move, the company aims to advance clinical research and introduce pioneering new drugs to patients, including the rapidly growing cancer patient population in China,” the biotech said.

“A combination of PD-L1 Antibody with chemotherapy, or targeted therapy can greatly improve treatment response and prolong survival,” said Yong Yue, M.D., Ph.D., chief medical officer of Laekna. “We have mapped a number of combination strategies to treat a variety of cancers that do not respond or are resistant to checkpoint inhibitor treatments.”

Laekna said it will kick-start the combo test “as soon as possible” to help cancer patients in China. Many trials in Europe and the U.S. have been beset by delays over the spread of the COVID-19 disease, but China appears to be relaxing some of its more stringent lockdown policies; it remains to be seen how much this will impact trials such as the ones Laekna is plotting.  

This is the third in a recent series of pacts between Laekna and Novartis, which includes it nabbing global rights to develop a CYP17 inhibitor (CFG920), an oral androgen inhibitor, for prostate cancer as well as a pair of oral pan-Akt kinase inhibitors originally from GlaxoSmithKline. In 2018, Novartis took an equity stake in the biotech.

“Novartis is a global leader in oncology drug innovation and we believe that the three oncology assets we have acquired from Novartis have great synergistic anti-cancer effects,” said Chris Lu, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Laekna. “This synergy will allow us to apply various combinations to treat many cancer indications, including triple negative breast cancer and prostate cancer.”

Novartis will receive an upfront payment with additional payments at key development milestones as well as royalties on future sales, though it did not give specifics on the dollar value of the deal.