How mergers and acquisitions will drive oncology research
How Mergers and Acquisitions Will Drive Oncology Research in 2019

How Mergers and Acquisitions Will Drive Oncology Research in 2019

By Dr Michael Seiler
Spring 2019

The year has got off to a fast start for oncology drug discovery, with numerous mergers, acquisitions and collaborations announced in quick succession.

These ventures provide a window into key trends in oncology research, where investigators are likely to focus their efforts, and the tools and technologies that will enable pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to turn promise into efficacious therapies.

Global spending on oncology therapies rose to $133 billion in 2017, with 63 new indications approved just in the five-year period from 2013 to 2017, according to the IQVIA Global Oncology Trends 2018 report. While the pace of innovation is accelerating, the challenges of increasing competition, pricing pressures and regulatory complexity are squeezing ROI. In this environment, collaborative efforts will play a pivotal role in advancing oncology drug discovery effectively and efficiently.

Several major ventures that are sure to impact the oncology landscape in the near and long-term were announced at the 37th annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in January. The largest was the Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) bid to purchase Celgene for a reported $74 billion, combining two successful oncology franchises – led by Opdivo® and Yervoy® from BMS, and Revlimid® and Pomalyst® from Celgene – along with early-stage pipelines that include drug candidates for solid tumor and hematologic cancers.

In the meantime, Celgene has remained busy shoring up its oncology pipeline, announcing a partnership that allows it to license immuno-oncology candidates from Kyn Therapeutics, including an AHR (aryl hydrocarbon receptor) antagonist programme.

The J.P. Morgan conference also saw Eli Lilly announce an $8 billion bid to acquire Loxo Oncology, expanding Lilly’s capabilities into the field of precision medicine. Loxo focuses on highly- targeted therapeutics for genomically-defined cancers – those dependent on a single gene abnormality, detectable through genomic testing – and has TRK, BTK and RET inhibitor drugs in both the investigation and approval stages.

Early 2019 has likewise proven productive for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Merck. The GSK acquisition of TESARO, completed in January, will accelerate its oncology drug discovery with the addition of TESARO drug candidate Zejula, a PARP inhibitor for ovarian cancer. In its announcement, GSK forecasted the potential to apply PARP inhibitors to a wider range of tumour types, with investigations under way for lung, breast and prostate cancer.

Shortly after, GSK announced a partnership with Merck KGaA that could take immune checkpoint therapy to the next level for lung cancer treatment. The companies will jointly develop and commercialise a bi-functional antibody to target two immune checkpoint pathways – one involving PD-L1 and the other involving the transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-B) protein – which some patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer overproduce, promoting tumour growth.

Additionally, the recent Merck bid to purchase Immune Design has the potential to advance cancer vaccine progress by combining Merck’s immune-oncology portfolio and pipeline with Immune Design’s two proprietary platforms (GLAAS® and ZVex®), designed to activate and expand the immune system’s ability to create tumour-specific cytotoxic T-cells in vivo.

These ventures came on the heels of several major developments in the oncology space in late 2018, including Illumina’s pending acquisition of Pacific Biosciences – a move that should greatly advance the critical field of genome sequencing by combining both long and short-read genome sequencing technologies.

Partnerships such as these reflect some of the prime areas of focus for oncology investigators, as they build on initial successes and explore new treatment avenues. Unsurprisingly, it is evident that immunotherapy will continue to be a major emphasis.

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