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Gilead bets on ‘trispecifics’ in latest cancer drug deal

Dive Brief:

  • Gilead Sciences is teaming up with a Dutch biotechnology company to discover and develop a kind of cancer therapy known as “trispecific antibodies.”
  • As the name suggests, these antibodies are designed to bind to three targets, including antigens associated with tumors. Bispecific antibody drugs have proven effective hemophilia, certain eye conditions and a range of cancers, from blood to lung to skin.
  • Per deal terms, Gilead will make a $25 million equity investment in its new partner, Merus, and provide an upfront payment of $56 million. The partnership will cover two to three drug programs. Across those programs, Merus is also eligible to receive as much as $1.5 billion in additional payments.

Dive Insight:

Over the past decade, Gilead, which became one of the world’s wealthiest biotechs by developing highly effective treatments for viruses like hepatitis and HIV, has been trying to find similar success in oncology.

In 2020, the company spent a warchest of more than $27 billion on a string of acquisitions meant to bolster its place in cancer drug development. But aside from its buyout of Immunomedics, those deals have yet to yield marketed products.

There have also been more setbacks than some investors expected. For example, multiple studies testing the central medicine in Gilead’s $5 billion acquisition of Forty Seven either failed or were cut short. Gilead is now reviewing that drug, putting its future in doubt. 

Gilead’s oncology division generated $2.9 billion in product sales last year, with about 60% coming from cell therapies.

Despite the problems, Gilead has continued cancer dealmaking. The company recently expanded a collaboration with cell therapy developer Arcellx, upped its equity stake in Arcus Biosciences, and bought the private biotechs XinThera and Tmunity Therapeutics.

The Merus agreement gives Gilead the right to license programs after “select research activities” are completed. Should Gilead exercise the licensing option, it would become responsible for additional research, development and commercialization activities.

The companies didn’t specify what cancers or targets they’ll focus on. But they did say Merus will lead early-stage research activities for two programs and have an option to pursue a third.

Merus can receive tiered royalties from the mid-single to low-double digits on any products stemming from the collaboration. And if a third program materializes, the company may choose to evenly split net profits and losses with Gilead instead of collecting milestone and royalty payments.