CytomX pens $1.6B Astellas biobucks pact for T-cell R&D

Astellas US
CytomX teams up with Astellas after a flurry of late 2019 biotech buyouts for the pharma company. (Astellas)

With $80 million upfront and up to $1.6 billion in biobucks, Astellas is still ramping up the biotech deals after ending 2019 on a buyout high.

Its latest deal sees it strike a modest upfront but meaty backloaded deal with CytomX Therapeutics and will dig into its so-called Probody drug platform, as well as its bispecific formats and CD3 modules. The plan is to unlock the potential of T-cell engaging bispecifics in the treatment of solid tumors.

Under the deal, CytomX and Astellas will work on several initial programs. CytomX will lead research and discovery activities, up to clinical candidate selection, that will be funded by Astellas.

For its part, Astellas will lead and stump up the cash for preclinical and clinical development as well as sales work.

“This collaboration with Astellas leverages CytomX’s deep expertise in targeting multiple antibody modalities to the tumor microenvironment,” said Sean McCarthy, D. Phil., president, CEO and chairman of CytomX. “We are excited about the use of our technology to assist Astellas in unlocking the potential of T-cell engaging bispecifics in the treatment of solid tumors, building on the growing proof of concept we have established for our platform.”

This will be good news for CytomX, which has had a rocky few years: Rachel Humphrey, M.D., quietly and abruptly left the biotech in the summer of last year as its chief medical officer and wasn’t replaced until last month, by Alison Hannah, M.D.

Humphrey’s departure came amid a tough year for the biotech and six months after CytomX partner Bristol Myers Squibb abandoned three discovery-stage programs from a $3.6 billion biobucks deal struck back in 2017.

That news came after a different Big Pharma pulled out from a pact inked in 2013 that netted South San Francisco-based CytomX $25 million at the time but could have been worth up to $635 million.

Pfizer officially ended that partnership after five years, but it had been gradually pulling back from it. Pfizer was to pick up to four Probody-drug conjugate targets under the deal but decided not to pull the trigger on a fourth option. It returned the rights to an EGFR program and then culled the second and third partnered programs in the first quarter of 2018.

That said, CytomX still has other partners, notably Amgen and AbbVie. The team is working on a program against CD71 and announced last year it has picked out a second target, triggering a $10 million milestone payment.

It also still has ties to BMS and late last year started its phase 2 test studying one of two leading drugs, CX-072, in combination with Bristol’s checkpoint inhibitor cancer med Yervoy (ipilimumab) in relapsed or refractory melanoma.

Astellas is now added to its pharma list and will hope to have better luck than some of its peers. This also comes for the Japanese pharma amid a flurry of gene and cell therapy biotech deals, with Astellas buying up Parker Institute-backed biotech Xyphos late last year to gain access to its engineered receptor in CAR-T therapies.

Xyphos thinks it may be able to create cells that circulate harmlessly when first administered. Xyphos could then turn the CAR-T on by administering a bispecific that binds to its inactive NKG2D receptor and a tumor antigen.

Astellas also snapped up gene therapy player Audentes for $3 billion just before its Xyphos buyout, grabbing its neuromuscular disease gene therapy work.

“At Astellas, immuno-oncology is a primary focus of our research and development strategy, and we are working on the development of next-generation cancer immuno-therapy using new modalities/technologies,” stated Naoki Okamura, representative director, corporate executive vice president, chief scientific and financial officer at Astellas.

“We look forward to the collaboration with CytomX, which will enable us to leverage both companies capabilities and expand our next-generation immuno-oncology therapeutic pipeline as we continue to dedicate our efforts to deliver innovative treatments for diseases with high unmet medical needs.”