Olema, prioritizing oral SERD, plans 25% head count cut, pulls back from early-stage work

Olema Oncology is betting the farm on its oral selective estrogen receptor degrader (SERD). After a year in which rivals dropped out of the race, the biotech reaffirmed its faith in the mechanism by narrowing its focus on a phase 3 breast cancer program—and put 25% of its people out of work in the process. 

Last year represented a reckoning for the SERD space. Sanofi scrapped its contender after back-to-back failures, and Roche suffered a phase 2 setback but kept other trials going. After the bad news came the good. AstraZeneca delivered a win for its candidate, and, early this year, Menarini became the first firm to win FDA approval for an oral SERD.

Olema put a positive spin on the developments, telling investors there are significantly fewer competing programs than in the recent past, and continues to try to differentiate its candidate on the basis that it completely inactivates the estrogen receptor. The biotech will put the idea to the test in a phase 3 trial. 

Investors have their doubts, though—Olema’s market cap is around $150 million—and the forecast cost of kicking off the phase 3 trial in the second half of the year has driven the biotech to prioritize its cash. Going forward, Olema will focus on late-stage development of its oral SERD, OP-1250, and pull back from other activities. The biotech cited the “challenging equity market environment” as a factor.

Olema’s R&D rethink has triggered a restructuring that will reduce the company’s head count by 25%. The layoffs will hit research, early development, and general and administrative functions. Two members of the C-suite, Chief Business Officer Kinney Horn and Chief Research Officer Cyrus Harmon, Ph.D., are among the departing staffers. Harmon co-founded Olema and will stay on the board of directors.

The biotech ended January with 86 employees, 53 of whom were engaged in R&D. By reducing its head count, Olema extended its cash runway into 2025, having previously said it would run out of money in the second half of 2024.