Two preclinical programs developed by Canadian biotech Northern Biologics have been acquired by privately held German company Boehringer Ingelheim, which is looking to bolster its cancer immunology portfolio.
The assets acquired from Northern Biologics in the deal, announced Thursday, are designed to target two aspects of what’s known as the tumor microenvironment: stroma, or connective tissue made up of different cell types, and myeloid cells.
Financial terms weren’t disclosed, although the companies said the agreement includes an upfront payment as well as other potential payments tied to the drug candidates’ progress.
As part of the deal Northern will continue working with Boehringer on the more advanced program until it is prepared to ask the FDA to clear it for human testing. The preclinical antibody is designed to block a protein called periostin, which is believed to contribute to cancer cell growth. That submission could be ready in the fourth quarter, said Phil Vickers (pictured), Northern’s Boston-based president and CEO, in an interview.
The other program Boehringer is acquiring targets a key regulator of myeloid cells, which may plan a role in enhancing antitumor T cell function.
Northern Biologics, which is backed by San Francisco-based Versant Ventures, emerged from the venture capital firm’s Blueline Bioscience incubator in Toronto in 2014. The company formed to advance research from the University of Toronto and Princess Margaret Cancer Centre into antibody therapeutics for patients with cancer and fibrosis.
The following year Celgene kicked in $30 million upfront for the option to one day acquire the company.
Then, in late 2016, the biotech merged with Barcelona, Spain-based Mosaic Biomedicals in a deal that brought it MSC-1, its sole clinical-stage asset. That drug candidate targets a type of protein known as leukemia inhibitory factor, which plays a role in tumor growth and progression in some cancers.
Amid Summit, NJ-based Celgene’s acquisition by Bristol Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) the pharma giant decided against exercising its option to acquire Northern—a choice that ended the companies’ collaboration and opened the door to other suitors, including Boehringer, Vickers said.
Now Northern, which has about 20 employees, is considering how to best advance MSC-1. Recently the firm completed a Phase 1a study evaluating the drug’s safety in patients with advanced cancer tumors, poising it to move into a Phase 1b/2 trial.
“We’re looking at all options at the moment to move this forward,” says Vickers, who has served as the company’s CEO since late 2017. “This is a program that has so much potential, and from the clinical data that we generated, has potential applications across a wide range of combination products, and, I think, ultimately, it will be in the best hands of a larger pharma company who can apply their resources to get the most out of that potential.”
The Boehringer is the third transaction involving a Versant-backed company in Canada since the VC firm first established a presence there, in 2014. Last August another Blueline spinout, BlueRock Therapeutics, a developer of cell therapies for a variety of different diseases, was bought out by another one of Versant’s pharma collaborators. Bayer, which already held about 40 percent of the company, snapped up the rest of BlueRock for $240 million up front.
Versant managing director Jerel Davis, who has been involved with Northern since its inception, says the firm has invested in eight companies in that country to date.