'We knew it was there': AbbVie CEO says company favored internal work over potential Daiichi deal

AbbVie CEO Rich Gonzalez says the company was aware of the potential for an ADC transaction with Daiichi that Merck ultimately pounced on, electing to prioritize internal work instead.

“We knew it was there,” he said on the company’s third-quarter earnings call Thursday. “But the reality is we believe we have what we need with [ABBV-400].” That internally-developed antibody-drug conjugate is currently in a phase 1 trial for patients with solid tumors. 

“We believe that platform—and we own that platform, we've developed it internally—would give us everything that we need in that area,” Gonzalez added. “And so it wasn't something that we were looking at.” 

His comments show that while Daiichi's ADC tech has emerged as one of the hottest items in the oncology space, not everyone is waiting in line for deal. AbbVie has at least two other ADCs in its pipeline, including ABBV-399 in late-stage development to treat non-small cell lung cancer and ABBV-706 aimed at patients with small cell lung cancer. 

Daiichi, of course, has made waves through its work with AstraZeneca and their powerhouse breast cancer drug Enhertu. So much so that Merck decided it wanted a piece of the ADC pie. The Big Pharma announced last week that it was signing onto a trio of Daiichi ADCs for $4 billion upfront plus $1.5 billion in continuation payments over the next two years.

The Japanese pharma told Fierce Biotech on the sidelines of the European Society for Medical Oncology Congress in Madrid last week that Merck wasn't the only one in the running. 

“Because of the capability of the pipeline and the data that's being generated, there were a number of companies that were interested,” Daiichi's Mark Rutstein, M.D., head of global oncology clinical development, said in an interview. The company evidently had its pick, going with Merck due to its blockbuster Keytruda franchise and clinical expertise. 

Gonzalez strayed away from commenting on the specifics of the deal and whether AbbVie made an offer. 

Earlier in the call, Gonzalez said the company isn’t in a position where business development is needed to drive growth and that prospective collaborations would likely be in existing therapeutic focus areas, namely immunology, oncology and neurology. 

For immunology, AbbVie would look to add new mechanisms that could partner with franchise pillars like Rinvoq and Skyrizi. Next-generation CAR-Ts and T-cell engagers are of interest to bolster oncology and in neurology, Gonzalez said. AbbVie also has an appetite for additional assets "in anxiety and mood." 

The pharma bought Mitokinin and its preclinical stage Parkinson's treatment earlier this month for $110 million upfront.  

“We need to make sure we find the right transaction so it's a value-enhancing asset for the company,” he said. “And when we find them, we will act on them—we will act on them quickly.” 

Annalee Armstrong contributed to this story.