J&J, Astellas strike potential $945M deal for oral RA drug

A Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) unit has gained a potential new weapon in the fight against rheumatoid arthritis (RA), agreeing to lay down $65 million upfront to gain rights to an oral JAK inhibitor from Astellas Pharma for all markets outside of Japan, Astellas reported. The deal comes as other players in the blockbuster market for RA drugs advance oral compounds against the joint-attacking autoimmune disease.

Astellas secured the deal with J&J's Janssen group after showing that the JAK inhibitor, called ASP015K, offered upbeat evidence of safety and efficacy in a 6-week mid-stage study in psoriasis patients, and three Phase IIb studies are underway for patients with RA. In addition to the $65 million down payment, Janssen has agreed to fork over up to $880 million to Astellas for development, regulatory and milestones for the experimental drug. Astellas stands to gain potential double-digit royalties on sales from Janssen.

The JAK inhibitor is among a class of new oral drugs against RA that could offer a way to combat the disease without injecting TNF drugs. Pfizer has the lead in developing such oral meds with its blockbuster hopeful tofacitinib, which could become the first oral JAK inhibitor to gain FDA approval for treating RA. Also, Incyte ($INCY) and its partner Eli Lilly ($LLY) have a JAK inhibitor of their own in the pipeline.

J&J has had blockbuster sales from the TNF drug Remicade, which competes with Abbott's ($ABT) Humira and Amgen's ($AMGN) Enbrel in the multibillion-dollar market for such treatments. Obviously, the JAK inhibitors against RA and other autoimmune diseases could take a significant piece of the pie, and J&J clearly wants a contender as doctors and patients get more acquainted with new oral treatment options.

- here's the release