Scripps Research, AbbVie Expand Drug Discovery Deal Beyond Cancer

Xconomy San Diego — 

The Scripps Research Institute and AbbVie have agreed to broaden an existing drug discovery agreement focused on cancer cell therapies to now encompass treatments for other kinds of disease.

Scripps’s early-stage drug discovery division, Calibr, last year inked a big partnership with North Chicago, IL-based AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) to develop potential treatments for solid cancer tumors. An investigational drug developed under the deal, designed to target the cancer protein CD19 with “switchable” CART-T cells invented at the La Jolla, CA-based nonprofit organization, is in preclinical studies.

Financial terms of this latest agreement weren’t disclosed, but the deal expands the purview of the partnership to immunology, neurology, and fibrosis.

Pete Schultz, CEO of Scripps Research and Calibr, said in a prepared statement that the partnership builds on the one inked last year, and “represents a robust path forward for some of our programs.”

Oncology will, however, remain a focus; the organizations said they would work on investigational drugs that deploy what are known as bispecific antibodies to target CD3, another cancer protein. Scripps and AbbVie didn’t reveal details about the other programs in the collaboration except to say that the deal involves multiple programs, and that as part of the agreement, AbbVie gets exclusive options to license other unspecified work Scripps is doing, too. Scripps will present some preclinical programs to AbbVie each year to consider for inclusion in the collaboration.

If AbbVie decides to license a program, Scripps Research would be eligible for payments depending on its progress, plus royalties if a product reaches the market.

Under the terms of the 2018 deal, AbbVie paid $55 million up front to gain up to four years of exclusive access to technology Calibr had invented for CAR-T, therapies consisting of immune cells engineered to become better cancer fighters. The Calibr technology better directs CAR-T cells to molecular targets of interest using an antibody-based “switch.” The switchable cells are intended to reduce issues, including potentially dangerous immune reactions and damage to normal cells, that have limited development of CAR-T cell therapies.

That agreement permitted AbbVie to identify the solid tumor targets the partners would pursue, and the option to license other Calibr programs.

Mohit Trikha, vice president and head of oncology early development at AbbVie, described Scripps as having “one of the strongest track records of any academic institution when it comes to advancing novel medicines for patients.”

That reputation hasn’t been enough to keep Scripps in the black in recent years, however. It has pushed to increase its level of private financing to supplement the grant money it gets yearly from the National Institutes of Health, which typically amounts to roughly $200 million.

The 2016 merger with Calibr—also headed by Schultz—was intended to speed the rate at which it is able to translate basic research discoveries into the clinic, with the aim of developing drug candidates far along enough to make them attractive to a potential commercial partner.