Korean CRO grabs failed cancer vaccine in $150M-max Jennerex buyout

A few months after Jennerex and its partner Transgene reported that their oncolytic cancer vaccine Pexa-Vec flunked a Phase IIb endpoint on overall survival in liver cancer, the private South Korean CRO SillaJen has stepped in to buy the company in a deal worth $150 million at the high end.

The release includes no mention of an upfront payment or what kind of payout Jennerex's investors will get in the near term, if any. But the new owner is described as a longtime investor in Jennerex committed to late-stage studies of Pexa-Vec.

There also aren't many details available over the extent of their recent trial failure. A short statement in early September was released without any data on outcomes. Both partners, though, stoutly insisted that they were nearing a decision on a Phase III study while other mid-stage trials were pursued in other areas. And the new owners insisted they are staying on track for a Phase III study without so much as a nod at the recent setback.

"The clinical data with Jennerex's lead asset, Pexa-Vec (JX-594), is compelling in multiple tumor types," says SillaJen CEO Eun-Sang Moon in a statement. "In a randomized Phase II trial, as published in Nature Medicine in February 2013, Pexa-Vec demonstrated an overall survival advantage as first-line therapy for patients with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma ("HCC", or primary liver cancer). Given the high unmet medical need in this patient population, these initial results are highly encouraging and warrant confirmation in a Phase III trial. We have also seen promising activity in colorectal and kidney cancers, the latter of which included two patients with complete tumor responses." 

The lead therapy is designed to mount a three-pronged attack on cancer: combating cancer cells through viral replication, cutting the blood supply to tumors and spurring an immune response to fight the cancer. Back in 2009 Jennerex reported signs of efficacy and safety in a dose-escalating Phase I trial.

Cancer vaccines, which have inspired significant investments in search of offering a new approach in the fight against cancer, have had a poor record in late-stage studies. But a wide variety of clinical studies are still being mounted in hopes of finding an approach that will work -- probably in combination with other therapies.

France's Transgene, which owns 8.5% of Jennerex, says it is looking forward to partnering with SillaJen. 

- here's the press release