Novartis makes protein degrader play, inking deal with new British startup to access fruits of novel tech

The search for an edge in the hot protein degrader space has led Novartis to Dunad Therapeutics. By putting up $24 million and committing to $1.3 billion in biobucks, Novartis has secured the chance to option candidates against up to four targets worked on by its new partner.

Novartis knows a thing or two about protein degraders. Jay Bradner, M.D., the top scientist at Novartis, was behind an early protein-degrader startup and has played an active role in the Swiss pharma’s work in the area. So, when Novartis looks outside its walls for protein degrader know-how, it carries weight. In Dunad, Novartis has found a partner among the newer, lesser-known startups in the space.

Dunad exited stealth earlier this year with financing from Epidarex Capital and plans to use tunable monovalent small molecules to directly modify targets and thereby enable selective degradation. The startup pitched the platform as a way to create protein degraders that are more druglike, orally bioavailable and CNS-accessible than candidates derived from the alphabet soup of technologies in use at other biotechs. Novartis’ interest offers an early sign that Dunad may be onto something.

“This deal highlights the clear benefits our platform promises for the development of next-generation targeted protein degrader therapeutics. We are confident that with our approach of inducing degradation via direct modulation of target proteins with mono-valent small molecules, we can significantly expand the boundaries of targeted protein degraders as a therapeutic modality,” Patrick Gunning, Dunad co-founder and acting CEO, said in a statement.

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Interest in protein degraders has increased in recent years, with Pfizer’s $1 billion deal with Arvinas cementing the status of the modality as a sought-after way to hit proteins that are undruggable using other medicines. Novartis has a presence in the space through its internal group, which moved a solid tumor candidate into the clinic in 2019 but has been quieter than some of its peers on the deal front.

To land the deal with Dunad, Novartis has put together a package that includes $24 million in an upfront payment and equity investment, plus potentially many times that amount in milestones that run from discovery through to commercialization. In return, Novartis has secured options on drugs against up to four targets that Dunad will take up to lead optimization. Novartis will fund the work and provide target and ligand knowledge as well as access to assays and models.