GSK doubles down on Zymeworks’ platform technologies with $908M deal

Just four months after GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) nailed down its first drug development collaboration with Vancouver-based Zymeworks, the pharma giant has stepped back up to the bargaining table to nail down access to a second platform technology that will be employed to develop new, bispecific antibodies.

While largely back-ended, like any discovery pact, Zymeworks will announce later this morning that it will get $36 million in an upfront and preclinical milestones, $152 million in potential development cash and another $720 million in commercial bonuses layered on top of sales royalties for anything that makes it to the market.

In exchange, GlaxoSmithKline gets the keys to Zymeworks’ Azymetric bispecific drug platform. The bispecific approach doubles up on a drug’s potential target, offering a complementary approach to its Efect platform, a library of antibody Fc modifications that can be used to orchestrate an immune response--either turning it up or tamping it down.

GlaxoSmithKline “wants to build large molecules with as many platforms and tools as possible,” Zymeworks CEO Ali Tehrani tells me. “Typically it’s very cancer specific,” he adds about his deals. But in this case, GSK is looking at “tools and capabilities in a much broader mind set than just cancer.”

GlaxoSmithKline has an ambitious early-stage oncology research division at work in the Philadelphia area, what remains of its cancer division after a major asset swap with Novartis. Tehrani notes that his company’s tech platforms have the potential to expand on the effectiveness of CAR-T drugs, adoptive T cell therapies that researchers are looking to push beyond blood cancers and into solid tumors. The pharma giant has also been engaged in developing a new suite of drugs for respiratory ailments, another core focus.

The deal brings GlaxoSmithKline’s potential payout to Zymeworks to more than $1.3 billion, part of a treasure trove of $4 billion-plus in prospective winnings that Zymeworks has lined up with additional deals from Merck ($MRK), Celgene ($CELG) and Eli Lilly ($LLY).

These deals have helped Zymeworks fund its own in-house R&D work as it adds to its growing tech capabilities. Zymeworks completed a $61.5 million venture raise in January and invested in a relationship with the neighboring Kairos Therapeutics to gain its antibody drug conjugate tech. And Tehrani isn’t done yet.

“We are looking at a couple more partnerships,” he says, which will help the biotech grow from a current staff of about 90 to 150 by the end of next year. In the biotech world, that’s a sizable amount of talent on the payroll.