AbbVie is positioning itself to add fibrosis drugs to its pipeline through a new research and development partnership with startup Morphic Therapeutics.
Under the agreement, AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) will pay Morphic $100 million up front for exclusive options to license the Waltham, MA, company’s fibrosis drugs. Morphic will be responsible for preclinical research and development. If AbbVie licenses the drugs after that, it would be responsible for clinical development and if approved, commercialization. Morphic would be eligible for milestone payments tied to the progress of the drugs, though the amounts of those payments were not disclosed. The startup would also receive royalties from any drug sales.
Fibrosis is the development of excess connective tissue in organs that damages them and impairs their function. In serious cases, the condition becomes fatal. Morphic aims to target a family of receptors on the surface of cells called integrins, which play a role in a variety of cellular functions. In fibrosis, Morphic is trying to block the activation of one particular integrin, TGF-beta, an approach that the company says could halt or even reverse the condition.
Integrin-blocking drugs have already reached the market. But these drugs are infusions and come with the risk of dangerous side effects. The Biogen (NASDAQ:BIIB) multiple sclerosis drug natalizumab (Tysabri), for example, comes with a warning that patients may develop a rare but potentially deadly brain infection. Morphic aims to improve the side effect profile of integrin-targeting drugs and also offer patients a more convenient pill formulation.
AbbVie is well acquainted with Morphic, which was co-founded by Harvard scientist-entrepreneur Tim Springer. The North Chicago, IL, pharmaceutical giant invested in Morphic’s Series A round of financing in 2016, as well as the startup’s $80 million Series B round, which closed three weeks ago. Morphic said at that time that it plans to use the new capital to advance its drug programs toward clinical trials. In addition to fibrosis, Morphic is also researching drugs to treat autoimmune disorders and cancer.
Here’s more on the origins of Morphic and its approach to integrin-blocking drugs.
Image of liver tissue with fibrosis by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies