JPM24, Day 1: Novartis reportedly in late talks for Cytokinetics after nabbing a Merck KGaA spinoff; J&J, Merck tie up M&A deals

The J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco is back and here at Fierce Biotech, we’re going to bring you all the latest updates live from the life sciences event of the year.

This year we’re not just dusting off the New Year’s confetti and trying to contain the outrage over the price of, well, everything, but also the flurries of M&A and licensing deals that have blown into life sciences land in the run up to JPM 2024.  

Those deals involve a host of Big Pharmas, including the likes of Bristol Myers Squibb, Boehringer Ingelheim, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, AbbVie, Novo Nordisk, Merck KGaA, Roche, as well as for Karuna, Insilico, Galapagos, and Moma, with a particular focus on experimental research for obesity and cancer.

But on the flip side, we also saw a major pruning in the gene-editing and cell therapy space as AlloVir, AlloGene, Intellia, and Aera either took the ax to staffers and programs or had a major re-think on their research direction, as they streamline into 2024.

With such a major series of moves before wheels up for SF, what can we expect from JPM itself? The Fierce team will be on the conference floor hunting down the biggest announcements and interviews, so stay tuned.

Check out our daily updates below for all the latest from JPM today and come back each day this week for your JPM roundups.  


Monday 6:00 p.m. ET Jan. 8

CG Oncology and CARGO Therapeutics have each individually drawn partnership interest, with late-stage programs that have become the apple of Big Pharma's eye, according to Ally Bridge investor Andrew Lam. 

"I think most actionable within our portfolio are things that are going into or in pivotal-stage clinical development, phase two post-proof of concept," he said. Lam did not say which potential partners were lining up for each.

CG Oncology was the first biotech to file IPO paperwork in 2024, while cell therapy-focused CARGO raked in almost $300 million from its IPO in November 2023. 

Editor's note: This was updated to clarify that CARGO and CG are not in partnership talks with each other. 


Monday 5:45 p.m. ET Jan. 8

Merck & Co. CEO Rob Davis said the company "is open to deals of any size," aside from large-scale, expensive acquisitions that would force the company to fuse workforces. His comments follow the company's $680 million acquisition of Harpoon Therapeutics earlier in the day. The deal adds further diversity to Merck's oncology portfolio and places it squarely in T-cell engaged race alongside Amgen. The class has demonstrated an ability to treat small cell lung cancer, a hard-to-treat lung cancer that's played second fiddle to NSCLC. 

Davis and research chief Dean Li, M.D., Ph.D., were consistent with previous comments that dealmaking decisions are led by the best science, not the best financial opportunity. Davis says is it just so happens that Merck's "sweet spot" have been deals in the $0-15 billion range. The New Jersey pharma acquired immunology biotech Prometheus for $10.8 billion and is paying Daichii Sankyo at least $5.5 billion over two years for a batch of antibody-drug conjugates. 


Monday 1:45 p.m. ET Jan. 8

Novartis is in advanced talks to buy Cytokinetics, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. The San Francisco biotech reported in late December that its heart medication aficamten improved patients' exercise capacity in a phase 3 trial, sending the company's shares soarings. Rumors have swirled about pharmaceuticals lining up to buy Cytokinetics in the weeks since. 


Monday 1 p.m. ET Jan. 8

Global computing powerhouse Nvidia has announced a series of new initiatives that include a collaboratiaon with Amgen’s deCode. The Amgen company will power Nvidia's new genomics foundation models alongside Nvidia’s supercomputer and BioNeMo generative AI platform. BioNeMo is a suite of programs aimed at accelerating drug discovery by combining several foundational models that companies can tinker with using their own data. Recursion is also joining the party and will be the first third-party addition to the BioNeMo platform Story


Monday 7:35 a.m. ET Jan. 8

Where Merck kicks us off with the first official deal of JPM 2024 Johnson & Johnson swoops in with a $2 billion deal to snap up Ambrx. For its cash, J&J nabs Ambrx's antibody drug conjugate (ADC) research programs, including ARX517, which is in a phase 1/2 trial for advanced prostate cancer. Story. 


Monday 7:30 a.m. ET Jan. 8 

After rumors swirled from Bloomberg this morning, Merck has officially bought out immuno-oncology biotech Harpoon Therapeutics for $23 a share, or $680 million. Merck will get its hands on Harpoon’s lead candidate, HPN328, a T-cell engager targeting delta-like ligand 3 (DLL3), that is in early-to-mid stage tests for small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and neuroendocrine tumors. Story


Monday 6:30 a.m. ET Jan. 8

J.P. Morgan’s annual 2023 Biopharma Licensing and Venture Report found that biopharma licensing partnerships accounted for $63 billion in total value during the fourth quarter from 108 deals. The biggest focus was on antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) in cancer research, which drove a fourth-quarter spike in licensing deal. Fierce Biotech's senior editor Annalee Armstrong drills down into the report and what it means for biopharma here


Monday 2 a.m. ET Jan. 8

The first official M&A deal of JPM ’24 sees Novartis snap up Merck KGaA autoimmune spin-off Calypso in an upfront deal worth $250 million with an extra $175 million in biobucks. The Swiss Big Pharma nabs its lead candidate, CALY-002, an experimental antibody that binds to and neutralizes Interleukin-15. Story


Monday 1 a.m. ET Jan. 8

Good morning from the Fierce Biotech team in the office and on the ground at San Francisco. There’s something of a tradition that at least one major M&A deal is announced over the weekend before we officially kick things off today, but despite whispers and rumors from some corners, that deal never materialized.

We did however see two separate licensing deals Sunday morning from Alphabet’s Isomorphic, with Eli Lilly and Novartis, respectively. These pacts are worth nearly $3 billion in combined biobucks,  but with relatively low upfronts. Both Big Pharmas will tap Google DeepMind’s AlphaFold AI tech, the foundation of Isomorphic’s platform. Story.