Innovent to pay Union up to $267M for rights to midstage psoriasis, eczema asset in China

Innovent Biologics wants to add to its lineup of inflammatory dermatology treatments and will dish out up to $267 million to Union Therapeutics to do so.

The Suzhou, China-based biopharma will pay the Danish biotech $20 million upfront for the right to develop and commercialize orismilast in China. The therapy is a midstage PDE4 inhibitor Union snagged from Leo Pharma for up to $200 million last June.

As part of the pact, Innovent will help participate in and recruit Chinese patients for studies of the treatment in psoriasis, atopic dermatitis and hidradenitis suppurativa. Combined, those indications affect about 56 million people in China, the companies said. 

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Union's orismilast program has been tested in phase 2 studies, including an oral formulation in psoriasis and atopic dermatitis (eczema) and a topical version in eczema. The drug is also being tested in proof-of-concept studies in hidradenitis suppurativa, which causes lumps under the skin. 

Innovent already has an approved psoriasis treatment, Sulinno, a Humira biosimilar that China's regulatory body has approved for multiple indications.

The biopharma was one of multiple parties that approached Union this summer to discuss rights to the drug, said Kim Domela Kjøller, M.D., Union CEO, in an interview with Fierce Biotech. The executive joined Union a few months after the company acquired orismilast from Leo, where Kjøller was executive vice president of global R&D.

The next step is to test orismilast in phase 2b clinical trials, Kjøller said, noting data readouts will come about 15 to 18 months after the studies begin. Once those data are in, Union will look to partner with a Big Pharma for global rights outside of China, given the large populations of people who have both conditions, Kjøller said.

Union hopes orismilast can be more potent than Amgen's psoriasis drug Otezla, which was acquired from Celgene for $13.4 billion in 2019, Kjøller said.

RELATED: Leo takes topical JAK inhibitor into phase 3 eczema program

By the time the biotech has data in hand for regulatory filings, Union could have stiff competition in psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. Orismilast's creator, Leo, has an atopic dermatitis monoclonal antibody awaiting (PDF) an FDA nod and a pan JAK inhibitor in a late-stage trial for hand eczema. 

There's a whole field of JAK inhibitors that have been stalled in the FDA regulatory queue because of safety warnings attached to the drug class. If those therapies are able to eke out a win, Union would face competition from Pfizer, Incyte and others. 

For now, Union will focus on the midstage dermatology assets and a COVID-19 nasal spray candidate that is currently in two studies. The company, founded in 2011 as AntibioTx, raised 155 million Danish krone ($24.3 million) in February.