EQRx abandons low cost drug plan, slashes programs down to one and cuts staff in 'reset'

EQRx is abandoning its plan to provide drugs that are typically expensive at lower prices. The biotech is also cutting ties with two of its partners, letting go of 170 staff members and slashing all assets from its pipeline except one. 

The restructuring has been dubbed a “reset” of EQRx’s business and clinical focuses, according to a May 8 earnings call and an accompanying release.   

The Massachusetts-based biotech initially set out to radically reduce drug prices via a “global buyers club” made up of insurers and hospital systems worldwide. However, the dream lost traction at the end of last year when the biotech chose not to seek FDA approval of cancer drug sugemalimab because officials wouldn’t accept clinical data from China.   

Shortly after, the immuno-inflammatory company trimmed its team by 18%, leaving around 300 staff members at the end of March of this year. The move was made in hopes of streamlining expenses and was projected to save $18 million annually.  

Now, EQRx has reduced its workforce again, eliminating 170 roles, or about 57% of its team. Alongside the workforce culls, the company won’t be filling positions of prior departures.

The company is also ditching all of its programs except lerociclib, a CDK 4/6 inhibitor that was licensed from G1 Therapeutics in 2020. The therapy is currently being tested in a phase 3 trial in combo with approved drug letrozole in patients with first-line advanced endometrial cancer, as well as a phase 2 trial in patients with first- and second-line advanced breast cancer alongside letrozole or faslodex.

As for the rest of its (former) pipeline, EQRx has dedicated $25 million to rolling out all its early-stage, immuno-inflammatory cancer programs into a new wholly owned subsidiary. The biotech is also looking for a partner to commercialize its third-generation EGFR inhibitor, dubbed aumolertinib, outside of China. The asset is currently being studied in a three-arm phase 3b clinical trial as a monotherapy or combo treatment with chemotherapy compared to approved drug Tagrisso as a first-line treatment of EGFR-mutated non-small cell lung cancer.

Part of the reset includes ending deals with CStone Pharmaceuticals and Lynk Pharmaceuticals, both China-based biotechs. EQRx inked a deal with CStone back in 2020, paying out $150 million cash and with up to $1.15 billion possible in milestone payments for a pair of PD-1/PD-L1 meds. The biotech is now returning the rights to nofazinlimab, an anti-PD-1 antibody in development for various tumors, and the aforementioned sugemalimab, a PD-L1 inhibitor that’s being studied in several types of cancer.

The Lynk deal, also penned in 2020, gave EQRx exclusive licensing rights for the research, development and commercialization of LNK-207, a JAK-1 inhibitor also known as EQ121. The U.S. biotech gained global rights to the asset except in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, paying an undisclosed upfront fee giving Lynk the chance to make up to $172 million in milestone payments in return.  

When it’s all said and done, EQRx estimates total restructuring costs for the year could top out at $55 million. The reset is expected to save at least $125 million annually, EQRx President and CEO Melanie Nallicheri said on the May 8 call.

The company had $1.3 billion in cash, cash equivalents and short-term investments at the end of quarter one to funnel toward lerociclib’s development.

“We're bringing our cash burn way down—this is a time when this scale of capital is extremely valuable,” Nallicheri said. “Capital has become expensive and there are a lot of people out there that are trimming their portfolios; there are a lot of companies that are trading below cash.”

The CEO said the $1.3 billion puts the company “in an interesting position” to put together “an interesting portfolio.”