Novartis ponies up $310M for IFM Therapeutics’ inflammation-focused unit

NLRP3 inflammasomes are part of the body’s natural defense against pathogens, but can also lead to the onset of various conditions, such as metabolic, fibrotic, autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases. (Novartis)

Novartis is handing over $310 million up front to acquire IFM Therapeutics’ inflammation-centered subsidiary, IFM Tre. The deal includes up to $1.265 billion in milestones and gives Novartis access to one clinical and two preclinical NLRP3 antagonist programs from IFM Tre. 

Specifically, Novartis is getting its hands on IFM-2427, in clinical development for chronic inflammatory disorders including atherosclerosis and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. It’s also picking up two earlier-stage programs: a gut-directed molecule for inflammatory bowel disease and a central nervous system-penetrant molecule, IFM Therapeutics said in a statement Monday. The deal is slated to close in the second quarter. 

NLRP3 inflammasomes are protein complexes that are part of the body’s natural defense against pathogens. They are responsible for activating the inflammatory response, which releases interleukins to combat infection. Diet, environmental stresses or genetics can knock this process off-balance, driving the onset and progression of various conditions, such as metabolic, fibrotic, autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases. 

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Targeting the NLRP3 pathway could be particularly useful, as it allows for the treatment of symptoms without interfering in other immune pathways, avoiding the side effects that come with systemic immunosuppression, the company said. The other immune pathways are free to launch inflammatory responses against harmful pathogens. 

IFM Tre's lead candidate blocks NLRP3 activity by binding to it outside the central nervous system, the company said when it raised its $31 million series A in July 2018. This prevents a shape change that leads to the maturation of the interleukins IL-1 and IL-18. 

“IFM Tre’s compounds have demonstrated that they can fine-tune the immune system, offering a potentially potent approach for treating a large variety of diseases associated with inflammation,” Jay Bradner, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR), said in the statement. “We look forward to applying our deep expertise in this field to advancing these medicines through the clinic and to patients who need them.” 

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IFM made headlines in August 2017, when Bristol-Myers Squibb paid $300 million up front to acquire the company and its oncology pipeline, namely STING (stimulator of interferon genes) and NLRP3 agonist programs for the treatment of cancer. At the time, IFM’s existing personnel spun off a new company, IFM Therapeutics, to focus on NLRP3 in inflammatory diseases and fibrosis. Since then, IFM Therapeutics has launched two subsidiaries: the NLRP3-focused IFM Tre last July and IFM Due, which is targeting the cGAS/STING in autoimmune and inflammatory disease, in February. 

The deal comes after a bit of a pivot for Novartis. Last July, the Big Pharma ended antibacterial and antiviral research at its NIBR campus in Emeryville, California. And in October, the Big Pharma pulled the plug on one-fifth of its programs following a pipeline review. 

“These are not bad ideas. Many of them have momentum, but they either are not likely to be transformative for patients, or are ill-suited to the focused business ambitions of Novartis,” Bradner said at the time. The company did not identify at the time which programs were getting the chop. 

Early this year, Novartis made some moves in the cardiovascular space, spending $150 million to license an antisense drug from Akcea and Ionis in February. Its new asset, TQJ230, formerly known as AKCEA-APO(a)-Lrx, is designed to block the production of apolipoprotein(a), thereby stopping a dangerous form of low density lipoprotein from collecting in the arteries and blocking the supply of blood. Later that month, Novartis set up a cardio-focused startup with Blackstone Life Sciences. Anthos Therapeutics started out with $250 million backing and an anti-factor XI antibody that Novartis took to the cusp of phase 2 as an antithrombotic therapy.