Hookipa, reeling from Roche's KRAS cull, lays off 30% of workforce, deprioritizes programs

Roche has waved goodbye to one of its KRAS prospects, terminating an alliance with Hookipa Pharma 15 months after betting $25 million on its novel approach to the oncogene. Shortly after receiving the news, Hookipa decided to lay off 30% of its employees and focus on a slimmed-down list of candidates. 

The Roche collaboration covered HB-700, a virus that Hookipa engineered to encode five mutant KRAS neoantigens. KRAS drugs from Amgen and Mirati, now part of Bristol Myers Squibb, target one form of the oncogene. Hookipa’s approach could create a single product that targets the most prevalent KRAS mutations in pancreatic, colorectal and lung cancer, namely G12D, G12V, G12R, G12C and G13D.

That prospect was alluring enough for Roche to bet on HB-700, despite already having a G12C inhibitor in its pipeline. Fifteen months later, the Swiss drugmaker has more data to suggest its G12C inhibitor is a genuine challenger to Amgen and BMS—and has decided HB-700 is no longer part of its plans.

Hookipa remains eligible for a final milestone payment tied to a filing to study the candidate in humans, and expects to recognize $20 million in deferred upfront and milestone payments, but other paydays have gone up in smoke. Roche was on the hook for $335 million in HB-700 R&D milestones across up to four indications, plus $15 million if it decided to option a program targeting undisclosed cancer antigens.

Jilted by Roche, Hookipa will now search for a new collaboration partner while working to file an IND and publish preclinical research on HB-700. The candidate is one of two oncology programs that are still in active development at Hookipa, which has paused development of the early-phase prostate cancer drug candidate HB-300 and most of its preclinical research activities to focus on its lead prospect, HB-200.

HB-200 is in development in HPV16-positive cancer. And, having linked the candidate to a 42% response rate when given with Keytruda, the biotech plans to start a randomized trial around the middle of the year. Hookipa reported the response rate in first-line oropharyngeal cancer patients, a setting in which single-agent Keytruda has achieved response rates of around 20%. 

The biotech, which ended last year with $117.5 million, will focus its attention on HB-200 and a pair of programs in hepatitis B and HIV that are partnered with Gilead. With other projects on the backburner, Hookipa plans to lay off 30% of its workforce, 55 people, by the end of the first quarter. The biotech is also stopping its GMP manufacturing facility project. 

Hookipa’s share price fell 10% to 63 cents in premarket trading on Monday.