Bristol-Myers lends Opdivo to a combo with Neon's neoantigen attack on cancer

A little more than two months after launching with a $55 million bankroll and a plan to develop next-gen cancer vaccines and immunotherapies, Third Rock startup Neon Therapeutics has allied with a leader in the checkpoint inhibitor space.

Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) is lending its game-changing PD-1 drug Opdivo for a combo therapy with Neon's lead drug, NEO-PV-01, which is concentrating on the burgeoning field of neoantigen research in the hunt for a new and personalized way to spur an immune system attack on cancer. The companies have mapped out a Phase Ib program that will explore safety and look for early proof-of-concept data on melanoma, smoking-associated non-small cell lung cancer and bladder cancer.

Bristol-Myers and the other leaders in the field, particularly Merck (Keytruda), have been inking a blizzard of these pacts as biotechs of every shape and size look to carve out a space for themselves in what is widely believed to be a multibillion-dollar market in the making. Like many of these deals, no terms on who's paying the R&D bill or anything else relative to future payouts was included in their statement.

Neon, though, is taking the lead on trial execution.

Cary Pfeffer

When Neon launched at the beginning of October under the guidance of the well-known biotech duo Dr. Cary Pfeffer and Dr. Robert Tepper, the company spelled out a plan to develop personalized therapeutic cancer vaccines that use unique neoantigens--antigens which are foreign to the body, found in cancer--that can be used to spur a specific immune system attack tailored to the individual patient. A second "quadrant" of therapies will look for shared neoantigens that can be used for off-the-shelf therapeutic vaccines, looking for antigens that are shared across groups of patients.

Neoantigens have loomed large this year, drawing the attention of Moderna, the startup Gritstone and biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who spent $50 million to buy control of Precision Biologics, which is also working on neoepitopes.

"We are excited to be working with Bristol-Myers Squibb, a proven leader in immuno-oncology," said Pfeffer, interim chief executive officer of Neon Therapeutics, in a statement. "We believe this collaboration will accelerate the development of fully personalized neoantigen therapies, and provide additional data around the potential synergy of complementary immune-mediated mechanisms of action."

- here's the release