Ablynx lands $840M AbbVie deal on next-gen Humira successor

AbbVie has whipped out the checkbook to close a partnership with Belgian antibody specialist Ablynx on one of its lead programs, paying $175 million upfront and promising up to $665 million more in milestones in exchange for a next-gen approach to rheumatoid arthritis that could eventually succeed Humira.

AbbVie ($ABBV), the new kid on the Big Pharma block since it was spun out of Abbott ($ABT), gains commercialization rights on ALX-0061, an anti-inflammatory "nanobody" that has wrapped a small but promising Phase IIa study. Ablynx will use the upfront cash to complete the mid-stage work on the program and then hand it over to AbbVie for the Phase III. AbbVie gains an IL-6 therapy for rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus and Ablynx will retain co-promotion rights in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

"Anti-IL-6 antibodies are a proven mechanism of action for autoimmune diseases and ALX-0061 has shown potential in a Phase IIa clinical trial in RA," said Scott Brun, AbbVie's vice president of pharmaceutical development. "We are looking forward to working with Ablynx to develop a potentially new and effective therapy for patients suffering from serious chronic conditions such as RA and SLE."

Ablynx has inked a slate of discovery deals with some big outfits, like Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck Serono, Novartis ($NVS), Wyeth and Merck ($MRK). But this is its first big pact on a clinical-stage program. The deal highlights the promise of its unique antibody approach, taking the smaller, simplified structures of camel and llama antibodies and repurposing them for work in humans.

To put it simply, nanobodies are designed to latch on to their target better, offering a lower tox design with high affinity. Due to its much smaller size--about one-tenth the size of currently used antibodies--it can also act more like a small molecule than a large molecule, inhibiting enzymes.

In earlier research Ablynx had already highlighted the role that its work could play in RA, a field dominated by AbbVie's Humira (adalimumab). A segment of Humira patients produce neutralizing antibodies that can eliminate efficacy, requiring a different treatment. Pfizer ($PFE) dumped its rights to an RA program at Ablynx, originally inherited in the Wyeth buyout, back in the fall of 2011 as it narrowed its R&D focus in a major restructuring.

For AbbVie, the deal marks one possible approach to coming to grips with its extraordinary dependence on Humira, which delivers the lion's share of the company's revenue. Ablynx's shares jumped about 14% on the news today.

"This should attract the next level of investors and we anticipate the stock to stabilize at new highs," KBC analyst Jan De Kerpel noted, according to a Reuters report. 

- here's the press release
- read the Reuters story