Jilted by Bristol Myers, Ikena cuts headcount by 35% in retreat from drug discovery

Ikena Oncology is going all in on its two lead assets. After missing out on $90 million from Bristol Myers Squibb, the biotech has outlined plans to lay off 35% of its workforce and shift resources from drug discovery to clinical development of its two top cancer prospects.

In 2019, Celgene handed Kyn Therapeutics $95 million in return for options on two drug candidates. The names of the players changed, with Kyn rebranding as Ikena and Celgene joining BMS, but the collaboration continued—until now. With its option expiring this month, BMS has walked away from the AHR antagonist IK-175 and kynureninase IK-412.

The decision has deprived Ikena of a cash injection. BMS needed to pay $50 million to license IK-175 and $40 million to exercise its option on IK-412. Ikena disclosed details of BMS’ decision alongside news of a reduction in its headcount.

Seeking to stretch its $175 million cash pile into the second half of 2026, the biotech is laying off around 20 people. The 35% reduction in headcount will mainly affect drug discovery positions, although “select employees working in development and general and administrative functions” also face the chop. The layoffs will leave Ikena with around 37 full-time employees. 

The remaining staff will work to advance the TEAD1 inhibitor IK-930 and MEK/RAF molecular glue IK-595 to clinical milestones. Ikena is studying two formulations of IK-930—one of which is intended to improve on an original preparation that failed to hit efficacious exposure in eight of 15 patients last year—and has expanded recruitment in mesothelioma and epithelioid hemangioendothelioma (EHE). 

“The enrollment of mesothelioma and EHE patients will provide the best look at IK-930’s efficacy given that TEAD activation is known to drive the majority of mesothelioma cases and Hippo mutations define 100% of EHE cases,” analysts at William Blair wrote in a note to investors this morning. A data update is due in the second half of the year.

Ikena dosed an initial cohort with IK-595 last month. Enrollment of RAS and RAF mutant cancer patients in the dose-escalation study is ongoing. The biotech also plans to enroll “backfill and expansion cohorts ... in multiple indications where IK-595 may have differentiated advantages.”

With Ikena prioritizing those candidates, it has opted against further investment in the assets dumped by BMS. IK-175 completed a phase 1b study in urothelial carcinoma last year, while IK-412 is IND ready. Ikena is looking to find new homes for the candidates, with the assets joining Ikena’s internal discovery-stage projects in Hippo-altered and RAS-mutated cancers on the cutting room floor.