Purdue bags rights to Exicure's gene-regulating psoriasis gel

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The deal with Exicure is one of the largest ever undertaken by Purdue.

Chicago-based biotech Exicure just signed up its first partnership deal, with Purdue Pharma offering up to $790 million for rights to its lead psoriasis drug and three other projects.

The lead compound—called AST-005—is based on Exicure's spherical nucleic acid (SNA) nanotechnology, designed to deliver gene-regulating nucleic acid payloads into cells without triggering an immune response. 

The tumor-necrosis factor-targeting drug has already successfully cleared a Phase I trial, according to Exicure, and if it proves safe and effective in further studies could provide a better tolerated, topical alternative to systemic anti-TNF drugs such as AbbVie's Humira (adalimumab), Johnson & Johnson's Remicade (infliximab) and Amgen's Enbrel (etanercept).

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Exicure has been flying somewhat under the radar since it came into being (initially as AuraSense) in 2011, but attracted attention after picking up $42 million in funding from a group of investors that included Bill Gates.

Purdue is handing Exicure an undisclosed upfront payment along with an equity investment and promised development, regulatory and commercial milestones if AST-005 and three additional projects come to fruition. Additional trials of the drug are due to start in 2017.

The deal represents a diversification for privately held Purdue, which for years has largely concentrated its efforts on a portfolio of opioid-based painkillers headed by OxyContin (oxycodone), which is now facing increased generic competition.  

Meanwhile, escalating levels of abuse of opioids in the U.S. has led to calls for a crackdown on prescribing and encouraged the company to invest in nonopioid painkiller R&D as well as expand into new sectors. 

"This long-term strategic collaboration agreement represents a significant expansion of Purdue's pipeline," said the drugmaker's chief executive Mark Timney, adding that it "provides us with the potential to further our mission of developing novel therapies for patients with chronic conditions."

Last year Purdue signed a deal with Eisai to split the costs of lemborexant, a Phase III insomnia treatment, and picked up Canadian rights to sell Helsinn's Akynzeo for the prevention of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV), as well as expanding an early-stage R&D funding initiative.

The deal with Exicure is one of the largest ever undertaken by Purdue, however. Timney told the BIO conference earlier this year that the company is in the process of converting from a highly internally driven organization to one that is focused on building external relationships through acquisition, licensing or partnering.

"We're flipping the business model which will hopefully allow us to diversify the company," he added, saying that central nervous system and other specialty disease areas were targets for expansion.