Novartis gains option to buy IFM Therapeutics' subsidiary under deal to develop drugs targeting cGAS/STING pathway

Novartis gained an option to acquire IFM Therapeutics' subsidiary IFM Due for up to $840 million as part of an agreement to develop immunotherapies that inhibit the cGAS/STING pathway to treat inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, the latter company said Thursday. Earlier this year, Novartis agreed to pay $310 million upfront to acquire IFM Therapeutics' IFM Tre unit, gaining rights to a number of programmes targeting the NLRP3 inflammasome.

Commenting on the latest deal, Prakash Raman, global head of business development and licensing at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, explained that the drugmaker opted against an outright purchase of IFM Due because the company is a couple of years away from starting clinical development. Under the agreed terms, Novartis will make fixed payments to fully finance IFM Due's R&D costs for the cGAS/STING programme. In return, the Swiss drugmaker will gain an option to acquire IFM Due, which if it exercises, will result in an undisclosed upfront payment upon closing and other contingent consideration.

IFM Due, which was launched in February, currently has two preclinical programmes, the first of which is focused on developing oral small-molecule antagonists that can block the ability of STING and is expected to enter clinical development in 2021. Meanwhile, the second programme is focused on developing small-molecule inhibitors of cGAS to block signalling at a more upstream node.

The deal for IFM Due comes as Novartis faces scrutiny regarding alleged data manipulation related to the gene therapy Zolgensma, which was obtained through its purchase of AveXis in 2018. In response to questions regarding whether the issues at AveXis had made Novartis wary of future acquisitions, Raman said "the challenge is always, do we trust the team," continuing "there are a few people from Novartis at IFM, so we felt comfortable with the team, and the rigour of testing we expect is in line with what they expect." In particular, former Novartis executive H Martin Seidel was named R&D chief at IFM Therapeutics in 2017.  

IFM Therapeutics was founded following the sale of its namesake firm to Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2017 under a deal potentially worth up to $2.3 billion, with the latter gaining full rights to IFM's STING and NLRP3 agonist programmes for treating cancer. For related analysis, see ViewPoints: Is STING losing its lustre?

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