Novartis hits the cGAS, taking option to buy IFM unit for $90M upfront

Novartis is stepping on the cGAS. Three years after securing an option on an IFM Therapeutics subsidiary, the Swiss drugmaker has accelerated into the deal and paid $90 million upfront for small molecules that inhibit the cGAS-STING pathway.

Researchers have uncovered the role the cGAS-STING pathway plays in the mediation of inflammation in response to infection, cellular stress and tissue damage over the past decade or so, spurring interest in targeting the axis to treat autoimmune and degenerative diseases. Novartis threw its weight behind the push by agreeing to fund research at an IFM subsidiary, IFM Due, in 2019.

Having bankrolled the preclinical research, Novartis has seen enough promise to warrant pumping more money into the program. The drugmaker has paid $90 million upfront and committed up to $745 million in milestone payments to acquire IFM Due.

In return, Novartis has gained full rights to a portfolio of STING antagonists with potential applications in the treatment of a range of diseases characterized by excessive interferon and other pro-inflammatory cytokine signaling. This morning's release lacks details of the status of the molecules, but the original plan was for Novartis to fund IFM Due through late-stage preclinical development of the lead program.

Drug developers are attacking the cGAS-STING pathway from multiple angles. One approach is to inhibit cGAS, an enzyme that activates STING. Ventus Therapeutics recently began a phase 1 clinical trial of a cGAS inhibitor, while Nimbus Therapeutics has a discovery-stage cGAS program in its pipeline. Other groups, including Bayer and Novartis, have inked deals for antagonists of STING.

Novartis’ decision to take up its option on IFM Due comes four years after it paid $310 million to buy another of the biotech’s subsidiaries. The earlier deal gave Novartis control of the clinical and preclinical NLRP3 antagonists in development at IFM Tre. IFM sold preclinical STING and NLRP3 agonist programs to Bristol Myers Squibb in 2017.