J&J builds on Geron partnership despite ongoing setbacks

Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson’s ($JNJ) Janssen Pharmaceuticals has added to an existing partnership with the long-beleaguered Geron ($GERN). The new deal is for exclusive, worldwide rights to the biotech’s oligonucleotide backbone chemistry, as well as novel amidates for ribonucleic acid interference, or RNAi, to prevent, treat or diagnose any disease

The partnership specifically excludes approaches to blood or bone marrow originating cancers as well as any product that works primarily via telomerase inhibition; but these are already covered under an existing deal between the pair that dates back to November 2014.

In addition, Janssen gains a non-exclusive worldwide license to monomer synthesis technology; monomers are the building blocks of oligonucleotides and this is slated to be used as part of the imetelstat program already licensed under the 2014 deal. Imetelstat is a modified short oligonucleotide.

Janssen is paying a $5 million upfront, with Geron eligible for up to $75 million in development and regulatory milestones in addition to low single digit royalties on worldwide net sales for any resulting product.

The move comes ahead of a Janssen decision on continuing to advance with telomerase inhibitor imetelstat. Janssen is slated to decide by whether to proceed with the Phase III portion of a Phase II/III trial during the second quarter of next year. If it does go ahead, patient enrollment in the Phase III portion is slated for mid-2017.

But data hasn’t been particularly promising from the two-armed, planned 200-patient Phase II portion of the trial of imetelstat to treat intermediate-2 or high risk myelofibrosis (MF) patients who have relapsed after or are refractory to prior treatment with a JAK inhibitor.

Earlier this month, the partners said they would discontinue new patient enrollment in the low-dose arm and move eligible patients into the high dose arm. In addition, new enrollment in the high-dose arm was suspended. Janssen is expected to resume enrollment in the high dose arm, change the dosing regimen, add a new dosing arm or to end the trial.

Small cap Geron was up 6% on Sept. 20 to a market cap of more than $300 million on the partnership news.