2019 will likely go down as a landmark year for biopharma partnering, at least when looking at the sums involved. Our rundown of the 15 largest licensing deals reveals a total value of $41.1 billion. Perhaps more significantly, more than $8.5 billion of that was paid upfront.
The figures come against a backdrop of plentiful levels of venture capital going into the sector—a pullback on 2018’s record levels, but still healthy—as well as a solid year for initial public offerings and acquisitions. The overall picture suggests that there is plenty of investment cash around for biopharma drug developers.
It’s also notable that more than half the total value came from the top 5 deals, headlined by AstraZeneca’s $6.9 billion tie-up with Daiichi Sankyo for HER2-targeting antibody-drug conjugate drug Enhertu and Gilead Sciences’ strategic alliance with Galapagos, which doubled its R&D capacity and also included the biggest upfront fee ($3.95 billion).
Gilead pledged the most to the pipeline-building activity, with three deals collectively worth almost $10 billion—with around $4 billion of that in early payments. Roche/Genentech stands at the head of the table with four deals overall, worth $8.55 billion but with less than $2 billion of that upfront.
Top deals are a snapshot of the partnering activity taking place across the biopharma industry, as well as the prevailing trends in R&D, and 2019 was no exception. Cancer drugs reigned supreme as the assets most likely to attract these big-bucks partnerships, making up almost half the total and continuing the strong showing among licensing deals and M&A activity in recent years.
Oncology also accounted for three of the top five, with GlaxoSmithKline’s play for Merck KGaA’s solid tumor immunotherapy bintrafusp alfa and Chinese drugmaker NCJTTQ’s bispecific antibody link-up with Abpro joining the Enhertu alliance among the top cancer deals.
Once again, drugs targeting fibrosis, inflammation, and central nervous system diseases featured prominently, and a clutch of licensing agreements involved cell and gene therapies, showing that cutting-edge science is still attractive to the Big Pharma groups.
Platform deals for preclinical or discovery-stage assets were also in evidence. Gilead’s buy-in to Galapagos' R&D engine is the biggest example, but its deals with Nurix and Goldfinch were also focused on tapping into their discovery expertise to yield multiple candidates, in protein degradation and kidney disease, respectively.
Roche, meanwhile, signed platform-focused alliances with Skyhawk for RNA interference drugs and with Adaptive Biotech for T-cell receptor therapies, which could unlock the potential of cell-based cancer immunotherapies in solid tumors.
The Skyhawk deal was one of two focusing on gene-silencing drugs, along with Mallinckrodt’s pairing with Silence Therapeutics in immunology/inflammation. — Phil Taylor