Just five months after Novartis put down $310 million for IFM Therapeutics’ inflammation-focused unit, the Big Pharma has come back for more. This time, it is teaming up with IFM Due, the subsidiary IFM created to develop treatments targeting the cGAS and STING pathways, with an exclusive buyout option worth up to $840 million.
Under the agreement, Novartis will make “fixed payments” to cover R&D costs for two programs at IFM Due: One centers on small-molecule antagonists of STING, and the second focuses on small-molecule inhibitors of cGAS.
Though IFM did not disclose how much cash Novartis is handing over, Lina Gugucheva, the company’s vice president of business development, operations and strategy, said the funding “is equivalent to what would have been a robust series A.” It will take the STING program through IND filing. IFM plans to bring it into the clinic in 2021.
Targeting the cGAS/STING (cyclic GMP-AMP Synthase, Stimulator of Interferon Genes) pathway is not a new idea. But others have “tried and tried and not been able to get anything in terms of small molecules that are progressible,” IFM CEO Gary Glick, Ph.D., said in a previous interview.
The cGAS/STING pathway is a part of the innate immune system that senses when DNA is in the cytosol—the fluid inside cells—rather than in the cell nucleus. This “danger signal” triggers the production of interferon and other inflammation-promoting cytokines. IFM Due is working on drugs to combat the excessive production of these proteins in an approach that could be applied to a wide range of diseases.
Glick could not specify which diseases IFM Due is going after but said they fall into two buckets: diseases that result from genetic mutations in STING and “a number of large market diseases where the pathway has been strongly implicated.”
“We’re taking a two-pronged strategy—we'll first generate unambiguous proof of concept based on genetics and then go off to other indications where there are very strong implications," Glick said.
When it gets to these latter diseases, IFM Due will be armed with the genetics and biomarker know-how to be able to select the right patient populations for drug development, added Martin Seidel, Ph.D., IFM’s R&D chief.
When IFM unveiled IFM Due back in February, it didn’t say how much funding the subsidiary was launching with. Turns out, the company had been in the process of raising a series A round when a number of pharma partners came knocking. Management figured that an early deal was the best way forward for everyone, and bam! Novartis was in.
Lest you think IFM has become an incubator for Novartis, Glick said it was “completely a coincidence” that it became IFM Due’s partner and potential buyer.
“When it started, I didn’t think, necessarily, that it would be Novartis. I was surprised it turned out that way—and delighted that it did,” he said.