12. Rova-T

AbbVie acquired Rova-T via its $5.8 billion takeover of Stemcentrx three years ago, but the ADC has since turned into an expensive and fruitless foray. (AbbVie)

small-cell lung cancer
Sponsor: AbbVie

AbbVie’s second entry on this list is Rova-T, an antibody-drug conjugate that finally outstayed its welcome after flunking a phase 3 study in small-cell lung cancer (SCLC), a difficult-to-treat cancer linked to smoking. 

AbbVie acquired Rova-T (rovalpituzumab tesirine) via its $5.8 billion takeover of Stemcentrx three years ago, on the strength of encouraging midstage clinical data in SCLC, with another $4 billion on offer in milestone payments. Since then, the ADC has sequentially failed as a third-, second- and finally first-line maintenance therapy for this form of cancer, which has few treatment options outside of surgery and chemotherapy.

Rova-T’s promise lay in targeting delta-like protein 3 (DLL3), which is expressed in more than 80% of tumors in patients with SCLC. It was designed to deliver a cytotoxic payload directly to DLL3-expressing cancer cells, while sparing healthy cells and reducing side effects.

The MERU trial reported in August was the final straw for AbbVie, which axed the drug after it showed no survival benefit over placebo when given as maintenance therapy following first-line, platinum-based chemotherapy for SCLC. The company decided against pursuing its development for other DLL3-related cancers, opting instead to divert its R&D spend into more promising projects.

Rova-T turned into an expensive and fruitless foray, and AbbVie confirmed earlier this year that it would absorb an impairment charge of about $4 billion in relation to the Stemcentrx deal, which was signed when the company was desperately seeking bolt-on acquisitions to reduce its reliance on $20 billion cash-cow product Humira (adalimumab), now facing biosimilar competition.

Since then, approvals of new products like JAK inhibitor Rinvoq (upadacitinib) for arthritis and Skyrizi (risankizumab) for psoriasis have taken some of the pressure off, but they’re entering highly competitive markets.

Plus of course there’s a $63 billion merger with Botox producer Allergan to bring in near-term cash ahead of Humira competition in the United States in 2023, but that hasn’t bolstered the pipeline by much. Losing Rova-T was a heavy blow, particularly as the company had suggested peak sales for the drug could reach $5 billion.

12. Rova-T

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