Novartis further entrenches into radiopharma with $1B Mariana buy

With much still to discover in the massive world of radiopharmaceuticals, Novartis will take a deep dive into the unknown with Mariana Oncology in a $1 billion upfront acquisition.

With Novartis’ existing radioligand pipeline featuring Pluvicto and Lutathera and the Big Pharma model of taking drugs to market, Mariana CEO Simon Read, Ph.D., said the deal was an easy choice.

“It's almost a perfect marriage, the idea of an early clinical development organization together with a company that knows how to take these drugs to market,” Read said in an interview with Fierce Biotech. “The deal moved very quickly.”

Novartis was specifically interested in Mariana’s focus on the radioactive metallic element actinium, whereas the Swiss pharma’s other approved radioligand therapies use lutetium, according to Shiva Malek, Ph.D., executive vice president and global head of the oncology disease area at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. With Mariana, the company can expand into other radioisotopes.

“We think this is a really exciting platform. It has significant potential for patients, and, as we make investments for the future, this is where we want to go,” Malek said in an interview.

Mariana was founded in 2021 with fundraising from Atlas Venture, Access Biotechnology and RA Capital Management. Eli Lilly was another early investor.

The biotech’s lead program is MC-339, which is being developed in small cell lung cancer. The deal also includes $750 million in milestones, although Read was mum on exactly what would trigger them.

Deal for the sake of a deal

The deal conversation, as is often the case, began at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in January, according to Read. The CEO said the biotech didn’t need to make a big move like this after raising $175 million late last year in a series B, but Mariana had caught the attention of potential buyers. Novartis had recently been joined by peers Lilly and Bristol Myers Squibb in the radiopharmaceuticals space with plenty of deal action.

“It's an extremely hot area, no pun intended,” Read said. “As any biotech company that's in a hot space, you maintain an active business development dialogue with a number of parties. And we have had almost continual inbound interest in the company.”

While Mariana had a neatly planned pipeline, Read said a biotech always has to pick and choose the programs carefully based on financing, head count and other factors. With the weight of Novartis, the biotech can take a broader range of ideas forward and ultimately reach more patients than it ever could have alone.

“That was really a compelling story. And so this wasn't a deal to do a deal. This was a deal because it unlocks a lot more value for patients,” Read said.

The Federal Trade Commission has already given the tie-up its blessing, and close is set for tomorrow, according to Read. The pipelines are not overlapping despite being squarely in the same modality of radiopharmaceuticals. Novartis’ Pluvicto and Lutathera are approved for prostate cancer and neuroendocrine tumors, respectively, while Mariana’s pipeline tackles a wider range of tumor types and targets.

While peers like Lilly have been focused on bulking up the manufacturing side of the business, Novartis’ interest in Mariana was more around innovation. Although Novartis has certainly dealt with its own share of challenges getting Pluvicto and Lutathera to patients.

“It was not just a supply chain or a manufacturing story. It's the true matchup of a really complementary pipeline,” Read said.

With that said, Mariana does have manufacturing capabilities, but it will likely be focused more on the early-stage research side than on patient supply.

When buying a radiopharma company, you can’t just hand off the work to any other scientist. That’s why Read says Novartis plans to execute a “light touch integration,” meaning the experienced staff at Mariana will retain their roles and keep plugging away.

“My counterpart, Shiva Malek, at Novartis is very clear that the reason to acquire Mariana is access to the talent as well. And so no, we're not making any layoffs or any redundancies,” Read said.

Malek confirmed that the talent was one of the “main drivers” of the deal.

“Keeping the organization intact as much as possible is the plan. We have no near-term plans for any changes in the organization. And really, our focus is to ensure that the portfolio they have, we can deliver,” Malek said.

Read himself plans to stay on in a leadership role as well, although he didn't reveal exactly what that title will be.

Mariana’s manufacturing team is lead by Chief Technology Officer Bernard Lambert, Ph.D., who heads up a group with 50 years of radiopharmaceuticals manufacturing experience. The team has created a manufacturing facility in Watertown, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, to focus on early clinical development supply.

A joint steering committee will be formed to drive the unit forward and allow Mariana to operate with the same biotech model it's used to.

This is the second deal Novartis has signed with a radioligand-focused company this week, behind a $180 million licensing agreement with PeptiDream. Malek said both these deals are about “expanding breadth and scope of the targets to impact more patients.”

From there, Novartis is eyeing the potential for combination therapies with radioligands. That could mean other therapies in the same modality or more traditional drugs, according to Malek. That was the motivation behind the $150 million deal to buy the rights to Arvinas’ phase 3-ready protein degrader for prostate cancer, which was signed in April.

Malek was, of course, careful when asked whether Novartis is done at the dealmaking table.

“I would say we're going to continue following the science and do whatever is necessary to ensure that patients can maximally benefit,” she said. “So [it’s] hard to say what will happen in the future, but I can tell you we're definitely committed to the science and innovating in this space.”