Novartis ready to head for deep space with Voyager after a year 'kicking the tires'

It’s been a year since Novartis ventured into orbit with Voyager Therapeutics to find new central nervous system targets. Now, the Big Pharma is ready to go deeper into space with the adeno-associated virus (AAV) capsid discovery biotech.

Novartis has pulled the trigger on the March 2022 deal to opt in on two out of three targets, which means a $25 million payment for Voyager and the potential to access up to $600 million later in milestones.

“For a company like Novartis to be kicking the tires with our capsids for a year in their own hands and then opting in after a year of evaluation, I think is pretty significant,” Voyager CEO Al Sandrock, M.D., Ph.D., said in an interview with Fierce Biotech. He highlighted Novartis’ work with spinal muscular atrophy gene therapy Zolgensma, calling the Swiss pharma a leader in the field.

The original deal included a $54 million upfront payment and $300 million in potential payments down the line for each program Novartis chose to move forward with. The company opted not to move forward with the third program that was part of the deal, which was an internal pipeline decision on Novartis’ part.

The opt-in is the latest validation of Voyager’s new direction. The biotech focused its attention on the central nervous system last year, putting three assets for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and a type of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in the lead.

Voyager's TRACER platform screens genetic data to build AAV capsids, creating gene therapies that have better specificity and less toxicity, all at lower doses than conventional alternatives. Capsids are the outer protein layer of the virus vectors where genetic material is held. Voyager’s platform aims to select capsids that can penetrate the blood-brain barrier.

Sandrock would not reveal what diseases the Novartis partnership will address, but said to look to the ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Friedreich ataxia programs from Voyager’s internal pipeline for clues as to what the company’s wheelhouse is.

The Novartis deal is structured similarly to another signed with Pfizer. Voyager gives the pharma giants access to the capsids and lets them consider for a year whether to go all in. Like Novartis, Pfizer opted in on capsids for neurologic diseases but declined to continue on a program for cardiovascular diseases. That deal meant $10 million upfront and potentially up to $290 million in milestones for Voyager but a miss on $300 million tied to the cardiovascular program.

Sandrock said the Novartis and Pfizer opt-ins, plus an additional collaboration with Neurocrine signed in January, are external validation of Voyager’s capsid program and the new direction.

But Voyager may line up some additional planets to visit this year. Despite a difficult biotech market that has seen many of its peers crash to Earth, Sandrock and Voyager Chief Business Officer Allen Nunnally have been talking to a lot of companies about potential partnerships.

“These aren't the only companies that have seen the data that we presented at public meetings … and so we're talking to a number of people and we could be doing more deals,” said Sandrock, who left his post as head of R&D at Biogen at the end of 2021.

Nunnally said a big part of the effort for external partnerships is an acknowledgment that Voyager can’t do everything—especially not in this market. The Novartis and Pfizer deals are an example of where Voyager is lending its technology to a larger partner to boost their internal pipelines, whereas the Neurocrine deal is a more collaborative partnership where the companies will work closely together and split development costs.

Voyager is well placed to survive the rocky market that has taken down numerous companies over the past few months, which Nunnally attributes to the TRACER platform. Making deals with the likes of Novartis or Pfizer gives Voyager revenue to fund its own ambitions.

The company just picked a candidate for its passive tau antibody program for Alzheimer’s and is expecting to name another candidate for the ALS gene therapy program in the first half of this year. Voyager also recently announced a Huntington’s disease program and will be touting its science at a few high-profile medical meetings this year.

“The equity capital markets aren't great right now, so having the ability to bring non-dilutive revenue in that fashion is a definite advantage,” Nunnally said.

Voyager is presenting fourth-quarter earnings tomorrow, where investors can get a clearer picture of where the biotech is currently orbiting in terms of finances, but Sandrock estimated there’s more than $300 million in cash on hand on a pro forma basis.

“With the balance sheet that we have, we'd like to initiate some more early-stage programs,” he said. “Allen's a busy guy, so I'm hoping we'll be doing more partnerships [and] collaborations.”