Morphic bags J&J as second big pharma partner for oral integrins

J&J's involvement has allowed Morphic to expand its R&D focus (Raysonho/CC0)

Johnson & Johnson has joined AbbVie as a partner for Morphic Therapeutic and its small-molecule integrin platform, pledging up to $725 million to the cause.

The back-ended deal includes an undisclosed upfront payment and—coupled with AbbVie’s $100 million linkup signed last October and a $80 million series B the previous month—means that Morphic is now “well-capitalized to advance our pipeline into clinical testing,” according to the biotech’s president and CEO Praveen Tipirneni, M.D.

For now, Morphic is playing its cards very close to its chest when it comes to the therapeutic targets of the J&J deal, which it describes as a “multifaceted collaboration where we interrogate multiple integrin classes [with] integrin inhibitors and activators,” Tipirneni tells us.

Access to funding and expertise from J&J’s Janssen drugs unit means that the biotech has been able to ramp up its exploration of the therapeutic opportunities of platform, extending its scope to all 24 known integrins—cell surface receptors involved in many cellular functions including cell differentiation, cell migration within tissues and cell survival.

Moreover, Morphic has so far only been looking at integrin inhibitors, so extending its work into the activator category could unlock a whole new set of target indications.

“The loss of integrin-mediated interactions with the microenvironment can lead to impairment of cell function and cell death that can ultimately lead to organ failure,” says Tipirneni.

“Correcting these defects through integrin activation could potentially allow for restoration of organ function in human diseases across several therapeutic areas.”

Morphic’s position in small-molecule integrin-targeted drugs stems from the work of its scientific founder Tim Springer, who made the crucial discovery that integrin receptors can have multiple states. Early attempts to develop oral inhibitors resulted in compounds that were activating rather than blocking their targets, leading to side effects and multiple compound failures.

“Powered by proprietary integrin structural data, Morphic has designed candidates we believe will not have this problem, and we have generated preclinical data that supports this hypothesis,” says Tipirneni, who thinks Morphic’s in-house R&D will generate its first clinical-stage candidate this year.

Aberrant integrin signalling contributes to a diverse array of human diseases, including fibrosis—the subject of the AbbVie collaboration—as well as autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, and cancer. Morphic’s lead program is an oral inhibitor of α4β7 for UC and Crohn’s.

“Our team is pleased to have a partner of Janssen’s caliber join our network of collaborators working together to drive the development of a new generation of oral integrin medicines using our in-house platform,” says the CEO.

Under the terms of the deal, the two companies will work together through preclinical development to identify and advance candidates, and after IND studies Janssen has an option to license them. If it does so, Janssen will be responsible for global clinical development and commercialization.