InterMune buyout rumors resurface, with Roche, Sanofi on the short list

InterMune's ($ITMN) promising treatment for a rare lung disease has put it in Big Pharma's crosshairs, according to a report, news that sent the biotech's shares soaring as much as 20% on Wednesday.

Citing unnamed sources, Bloomberg reports that Sanofi ($SNY), Roche ($RHHBY), GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Actelion are among the bidders for the California company, which commands a market cap of about $5.4 billion. Sanofi has shown a particular interest in InterMune, according to Bloomberg's contacts, but, unsurprisingly, none of the players is commenting publicly.

Each reported suitor was likely drawn to the table by pirfenidone, InterMune's in-development drug for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). The disease, for which there are no approved treatments, is an often-fatal ailment that scars the lungs and inhibits oxygen absorption, leading to shortness of breath and poor pulmonary function.

Pirfenidone, which picked up the FDA's coveted breakthrough-therapy designation last month, came through in pivotal studies after enduring a 2010 rejection, significantly reducing patients' decline in lung function compared to placebo while meeting a secondary endpoint of performance on a 6-minute walking test.

InterMune resubmitted its treatment in May and expects to win approval by November, launching the drug in the first quarter of 2015 if all goes according to plan.

InterMune is racing with rival Boehringer Ingelheim to become the first on the U.S. market with an IPF treatment. Boehringer's drug, nintedanib, has also secured a breakthrough tag on the strength of solid Phase III data, but the German company has declined to disclose a regulatory timeline.

Analysts figure the U.S. market for IPF drugs could top out at above $2 billion, but whether InterMune or Boehringer claims the lion's share remains the subject of debate.

The biotech is no stranger to M&A rumors, as each of pirfenidone's incremental successes has resulted in a slew of anonymous-sourced reports, with Novartis ($NVS), GSK and Gilead Sciences ($GILD) said to consider bids at various points over the past two years.

Pirfenidone works by inhibiting two cytokines: TGF-beta, which controls a slew of cell functions and plays a part in fibrosis; and TNF-alpha, which has an active role in inflammation.

- read Bloomberg's story