J&J sees deal ‘opportunities’ in neuroscience and immunology post-Ambrx buy

Johnson & Johnson’s $2 billion Ambrx purchase was among a flurry of Big Pharma deals that fired the unofficial starting gun for what’s expected to be an active M&A landscape this year. 

This morning, the New Jersey drugmaker teased that there could be opportunities to bolster the other pillars of its revised pharmaceutical focus. 

J&J CEO Joaquin Duato said on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call that he sees additional dealmaking “opportunities” in neuroscience and immunology. He reiterated an often-made point that J&J is agnostic to sector or size but prefers to stay in carved-out lanes. 

“Our preference is clearly to be in areas in which we have internal capabilities and know-how,” Duato said. J&J is also considering moves to improve the standard of care for cardiometabolic conditions, namely pulmonary arterial hypertension, but the CEO wouldn’t elaborate on what exactly would pique his interest. 

Both Duato and J&J's Chief Financial Officer Joseph Wolk emphasized on multiple occasions that the company spent over $3 billion across more than 50 licensing and partnership deals last year, underscoring moves that weren’t full acquisitions. Historically, J&J has been interested in pursuing assets around the time they produce proof-of-concept data, Duato pointed out.

One area that’s drawn considerable investment interest has been aiming cell therapies at autoimmune disorders, and Duato confirmed J&J has a program of its own in the works that's already produced some "promising" early data.

A spokesperson wouldn't confirm to Fierce Biotech after the call whether Duato's reference to two autologous CAR-Ts—aimed at CD19, and CD19 and CD20, respectively—were those licensed from Cellular Biomedicine last year.

J&J’s business development strategy for the new year follows a record-setting 2023 for R&D allocation, with $15.1 billion spent— representing 17.7% percent of sales. It’s a 6.7% increase on the $14.1 billion spent in 2022, which was second-highest among pharmaceutical companies behind only Roche. 

In its earnings report this morning, J&J also offered further details about the total cost of its pipeline restructuring last year, namely the dismantling of its infectious disease and vaccine unit. All told, the restructuring costs totaled $479 million, including $55 million in the fourth quarter due to asset impairment charges and the termination of partnered and non-partnered programs.