Gilead buys into Ono's cancer drug as it scales up in oncology

Norbert Bischofberger

Gilead Sciences ($GILD) is pushing further into oncology R&D, teaming up with Ono Pharmaceutical on a cancer treatment that could complement its first major success in the field.

The California drugmaker has agreed to pay an undisclosed sum for the ex-Asia rights to ONO-4059, an oral drug designed to treat B cell malignancies by blocking Bruton's tyrosine kinase, or BTK. The two companies will collaborate on the drug, currently in Phase I, and Gilead is on the line to hand out milestone payments tied to development, regulatory and commercial goals.

The treatment works by blocking an enzyme that is key to B cell growth, which spirals out of control in certain blood cancers. The treatment has demonstrated some preliminary promise in chronic lymphocytic leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Ono said, and the partners plan to test it out both as a monotherapy and in combination with Gilead's other kinase inhibitors.

Perhaps most alluring is the prospect of pairing ONO-4059 with Gilead's idelalisib, a PI3K delta inhibitor approved as Zydelig earlier this year. The Big Biotech's growing oncology wing also boasts a ​JAK blocker in the Phase III momelotinib and the Phase I Syk inhibitor GS-9973, and adding Ono's drug gives Gilead a slew of mix-and-match options for B cell malignancies, Chief Scientific Officer Norbert Bischofberger said.

"In addition to evaluating ONO-4059 in combination with standards of care, we believe there is an opportunity to combine this compound with Gilead's other kinase inhibitors with a goal of achieving more pronounced and more durable response rates," Bischofberger said in a statement. "We look forward to working with ONO to move the ONO-4059 development program forward as quickly as possible."

After making its name in antivirals, Gilead is quietly working to build critical mass in oncology, this month recruiting Genentech veteran Philippe Bishop to take the lead as senior vice president of hematology and oncology therapeutics.

To date, the Gilead has largely relied on its checkbook to expand its cancer pipeline. Idelalisib arrived through the company's $600 million deal for Calistoga Pharmaceuticals in 2011, while momelotinib was the jewel of Gilead's $510 million buyout of YM Biosciences a year later. Beyond its kinase inhibitors, the company is developing the anti-cancer antibodies simtuzumab and GS-5745.

- read the statement (PDF)