Roche forges antibiotics pact as it sees beyond COVID-19 threats to public health

Swiss major Roche, already ramping up tests for the COVID-19 pandemic, isn’t taking its eye off of the infectious disease ball.

Today, it’s penned a deal worth up to $190.5 million with Forge Therapeutics to work on a new drug to treat not viruses, but bacteria: specifically, antibiotic-resistant Gram-negative bacteria including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause nasty lung infections.

The FG-LpxC LUNG program is being developed to treat hospital-based infections, including those cited on the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention's most urgent threats list, which commonly occur in people with weakened immune systems and chronic lung diseases. 

The deal breaks down like this: Roche nabs an exclusive option to license the FG-LpxC LUNG program from Forge. For its part, the West Coast biotech holds on to control of the program prior to Roche exercising its option. When that happens, Roche takes over further development. Forge can also expect sales-based payments and royalties for any drug coming out of this pact.

This will be added to the $5.7 million CARB-X awarded to Forge last year. Typically, antibiotic work has not been seen as a major corporate priority for biopharma, with many smaller biotechs left to pick up on this discarded area and several, in recent times, having nothing to show for it.

Typically, antibiotics don’t really make much money and are not as attractive in terms of ROI as areas like cancer and rare disease, which can take $1 billion or more to research and develop but can bring in tens of billions as reward (just ask Roche).

Roche has, however, maintained some presence here, and after the COVID-19 scare is clearly aware of the dangers of not working on infectious diseases. Antimicrobial resistance, whereby bacteria can longer be killed by older antibiotics, is estimated by the World Health Organization to kill 10 million people a year by 2050.

“Antibiotic-resistance remains an increasing threat to global human health and we are extremely pleased to partner with Roche to accelerate our FG-LpxC LUNG program toward the clinic,” said Zachary Zimmerman, Ph.D., CEO of Forge.

“We look forward to combining our novel approach and innovative chemistry with Roche's proven drug development and commercialization expertise to provide a truly new class of antibiotic for people suffering from serious antibiotic-resistant infections.”

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James Sabry, head of Roche pharma partnering, added: “We are excited to work together with Forge to develop truly innovative antibiotics. This new collaboration demonstrates our strong commitment to combat the urgent global health threat of drug-resistant bacterial infections with novel life-saving treatments that have the potential to make a difference in patients' lives.”