Novartis beefs up its cancer immunotherapy pipeline with a biotech buyout

Looking to beef up its cancer immunotherapy portfolio, pharma giant Novartis is gobbling up a startup biotech in the U.S. that could help provide an entry into the frenzied race for PD-1 targeting therapies. Novartis ($NVS) announced this morning that it had struck a deal to buy CoStim Pharmaceuticals, a low-profile biotech based in Cambridge, MA, and listed as part of Atlas Venture's group of companies.

In classic Novartis fashion, the announcement doesn't mention deal terms, or even very much about the biotech it's buying, other than to cite its potential in going after PD-1--now perhaps the hottest target in cancer.

Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), Merck ($MRK) and Roche ($RHHBY) have all produced fascinating data in recent months demonstrating the potential in taking the brakes off the human immune system and coordinating a powerful attack on a variety of cancers. Novartis, meanwhile, has been putting its considerable weight behind chimeric antigen receptor (CAR-T) technology and a new therapy advanced by Carl June at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mark Fishman, president of Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research--FierceBiotech file photo

The big idea here is that pushing the immune system to attack cancer can be combined with a variety of targeted drugs to offer a combination punch against the disease. Merck, anxious to regain its rep as a leader in drug development, recently announced a string of tie-ups with industry partners. And Novartis, a hungry giant with a big appetite for new oncology therapeutics, is clearly planning to compete in the field. It will now explore combining CoStim's technology with its CAR-T approach.

The technology, which was backed by MPM and Atlas, has a distinguished background.

"The commitment by MPM to build CoStim arose from the 2010 MPM Medical and Scientific Advisory meeting where Professor Arlene Sharpe of Harvard presented her work describing how T cells respond to the complex array of positive and negative inputs from their environment and how blocking negative signals could be even more important for anti-cancer T cell activity than further activating T cells," reports MPM. "Working with scientific co-founders Professors Arlene Sharpe, Gordon Freeman and Vijay Kuchroo, CoStim subsequently assembled a portfolio of agents directed at multiple T cell regulatory targets via relationships established with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston Children's Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Immutep SA."

"Therapy for many types of cancers are expected to increasingly rely upon rational combinations of agents," said Mark Fishman, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, in a statement. "Immunotherapy agents provide additional arrows in our quiver for such combinations. They complement our extensive portfolio of drugs that hit genetically defined cancer-causing pathways, and also may be relevant to expansion of CAR therapies."

Novartis R&D has a large and growing presence in Cambridge, MA, one of its three big research hubs around the world. The company has been pushing a reorganization of its $7 billion pharma R&D group, looking to trim costs and concentrate its work in the hubs.

- here's the release