Bristol-Myers inks Asia immunotherapy deal with Japan's Ono

In a deal that will build on their existing mutual relationship, Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Ono Pharmaceutical have formed a pact to bring immunotherapies to market in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Under the agreement, Bristol-Myers and Japan's Ono will jointly develop and commercialize nivolumab and the melanoma drug ipilimumab--marketed as Yervoy--across a broad range of tumor types. Prior to the deal, Ono had exclusive Japanese rights to nivolumab, and, in exchange for cutting Bristol-Myers in, the company gets a share of three additional early-stage clinical immuno-oncology products from its partner's portfolio--lirilumab, urelumab and BMS-986016.

Using nivolumab as the base therapy, Bristol-Myers and Ono plan to test combination regimens with Yervoy, lirilumab, urelumab and BMS-986016 in clinical trials in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

"Bristol-Myers Squibb's collaboration with Ono supports our goal to maximize the full potential of our immuno-oncology portfolio for patients worldwide," Bristol-Myers CEO Lamberto Andreotti said in a statement.

Nivolumab became the first among a new class of immuno-oncology therapies to win the good graces of government regulators earlier this month. Approved in Japan to treat unresectable melanoma, the PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor will be sold there as Opdivo.

Ono first got involved with the drug through a deal with nivolumab inventor Medarex back in 2005. Four years later, Bristol-Myers bought Medarex, leaving the American drug giant all rights to the drug outside of Japan, Korea and Taiwan, until now.

Designed to disable the cloaking mechanism that cancer cells use to remain hidden from the immune system, nivolumab is one of the shining immuno-oncology drugs in the global pipeline. Its main competition is with Merck's ($MRK) pembrolizumab (MK-3475), which is involved in a rolling submission in the U.S. and is under review in Europe.

As the immunotherapy class comes of age, Bristol-Myers has been making deals left and right in the field, including two earlier this year with Incyte ($INCY) and CytomX, to keep up with competitors Merck, AstraZeneca ($AZN), and Roche ($RHHBY).

- read the press release