Taiho Pharma, Cullinan Oncology join forces on EGFR drug for lung cancer

Taiho Pharmaceutical and Cullinan Oncology have inked a pact to develop the former’s EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) tyrosine kinase inhibitor for lung cancer. Taiho will grant an exclusive worldwide license—excluding Japan—to Cullinan’s new U.S. subsidiary in exchange for the usual upfront fee and potential milestones and royalties. 

Financial details were not disclosed.

The new subsidiary, Cullinan Pearl, will use Cullinan Oncology’s “shared service platform” to develop the asset, TAS6417. The approach involves a central management team and a network of partners to drive the development of preclinical and clinical candidates. Cullinan raised $150 million in October 2017 to fund this vision. The idea is to manage the risks inherent in drug development by placing bets on eight to 10 early-stage assets and selling those that show promise in the clinic.  

Also under the deal, Taiho Ventures, the Japanese pharma’s venture arm, along with Cullinan Oncology, will chip in on Cullinan Pearl’s series A round. 

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"This alliance, one of the first of its kind at Taiho Pharmaceutical, allows our organization to optimize its R&D resource allocation and accelerate global development by accessing external talent and resources,” said Teruhiro Utsugi, managing director of Taiho Pharmaceutical, in the statement. “We are pleased to partner with Cullinan Oncology and its experienced management team in bringing this novel treatment to NSCLC patients.” 

RELATED: Cullinan bags $150M to build broad slate of cancer assets  

TAS6417 is an orally available tyrosine kinase inhibitor that targets activating mutations in EGFR. The molecule was engineered to inhibit EGFR variants with exon 20 insertion mutations without affecting wild-type EGFR protein. Taiho is developing the candidate for non-small cell lung cancer that is driven by EGFR exon 20 insertion mutations, according to a statement. This group of NSCLC patients does not respond to standard EGFR inhibitors. 

Taiho and Cullinan aren’t the only players targeting this subset of NSCLC patients. In May, San Francisco Bay Area-based Rain Therapeutics raised $18.4 million to advance tarloxotinib, a compound licensed from the University of Auckland. Sparing wild-type EGFR is important because it is found in abundance in places like the digestive tract and skin, said Rain CEO and co-founder Avanish Vellanki at the time. As a result, any drug that effectively blocks EGFR will have “tremendous side effects,” he said. 

Other companies working on EGFR drugs have hit some roadblocks. Astellas, for example, pulled its NSCLC program after an independent data monitoring committee recommended it pull the plug on its EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor ASP8273.