Eyeing buyout, Celgene paying $105M to partner on Lycera's anti-cancer T cell tech

Celgene's George Golumbeski

Just days after narrowing its immuno-oncology deal with bluebird bio, Celgene is handing over an $82.5 million upfront payment to snag an exclusive option on preclinical compounds at Lycera that promise to amp up the power of T cells being rededicated to fight cancer. In addition, Celgene is promising another $22.5 million in near-term payments to the University of Michigan spinoff, saying that it also gained one of its preferred options to come back and buy out the whole company at a later point.

Celgene ($CELG) is known for its frequent use of the company checkbook to link up with promising biotechs in core fields, and Lycera--founded by Michigan's Gary Glick--fits the bill.

Back in February the Ann Arbor, MI-based biotech announced that it had gathered promising evidence that demonstrated that its oral RORγ agonists could improve the effectiveness of T cells like the helper cell Th17 and the toxic cell Tc17, boosting the immune response to cancer cells and improving their shot at creating a durable tumor-killing effect. And the biotech touted their potential as either standalone or combo cancer agents.

The collaboration also covers Lycera's lead drug, LYC-30937, now in Phase I development for inflammatory bowel disease.

Celgene deal czar George Golumbeski called it "potentially breakthrough science," adding that the deal "allows us to work very closely with Lycera to expand and progress their programs, and the structure aligns all involved in the work toward a future M&A event." 

Reengineering T cells to attack cancer has spurred the development of a new pipeline in oncology, with a full slate of biopharma companies like Juno ($JUNO), Kite ($KITE) and Novartis ($NVS) jumping into the field on first- and second-gen products. The focus increasingly is on second-wave technology that could help make these new therapies even more potent cancer fighters. And Celgene, despite its recent downsizing with bluebird ($BLUE), seems committed to remaining in the fight.

Lycera spun out of the University of Michigan aimed at using its T-cell tech to mediate inflammation, taking a new approach to treating major autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis. Lycera's technology--which Merck ($MRK) partnered with early on--is built around the observation that mice with RORγt deficient T cells lack Th17 cells, which produce the inflammatory cytokine interleukin-17. And by targeting Th17, they were able to reduce the production of IL-17 in cells and in vivo. The biotech recently landed an unspecified milestone from Merck for its work.

- here's the release

Special Report: The most influential people in biopharma in 2014 - George Golumbeski - Celgene