By Matthias Blamont and Noëlle Mennella
PARIS (Reuters) – France’s Innate Pharma believes that its cash position and portfolio are sufficiently robust for the cancer drug company to remain independent for the time being and will seek co-development deals modeled on an agreement struck with AstraZeneca in April.
Innate sees its independence as key to delivering optimum shareholder value in a sector characterized by big-money deals as large drugmakers look to acquire new, effective cancer treatments. In August Pfizer announced the $14 billion purchase of Medivation Inc, adding its blockbuster prostate cancer drug Xtandi to a growing oncology portfolio.
Marseille-based Innate specializes in immuno-oncology, a new therapeutic field that has attracted investors’ attention with drugs that stimulate or take the brakes off the body’s immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells.
Big pharma groups such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Roche and AstraZeneca are leading the immunotherapy pack, but smaller rivals have also been active in the field.
Innate’s share price has risen by more than 30 percent over the past month after positive preliminary data for trials involving the combination of Lirilumab, a human monoclonal antibody, with Bristol Myers Squibb’s (BMS) Opdivo in solid tumor’s of the head and neck.
The two companies, which teamed up in 2011, have other trials in the works and are hopeful that the combination will prove beneficial for patients suffering other forms of cancer.
“Head and neck cancers are on the rise,” Innate Chief Executive Herve Brailly told Reuters.
“We see some 600,000 new cases of this form of cancer every year in Europe, Japan and the United States,” he said, adding that Lirilumab would be tested in indications such as leukemia.
Under the license agreement signed with BMS, Innate received an upfront fee of $35 million but is eligible for additional payments of up to $430 million depending on future sales.
Innate also teamed up with AstraZeneca in April to expand the development of Monalizumab, another antibody that could show positive responses when combined with one of the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker’s treatments in various types of tumors.
The financial terms of the transaction include cash payments of up to $1.275 billion to Innate, plus double-digit royalties on sales.
“In the future, we will seek to seal more co-development agreements such as the one we have with Astra,” Brailly said, adding that the group’s cash, cash equivalents and financial assets amounted to 239.6 million euros ($254 million) at the end of the third quarter, leaving room to finance future projects.
“We are doing everything in our power to grow an independent biopharma business. I think this way we will create more added value for our shareholders than we would with a premature transaction,” Brailly said when asked if his company had been approached by potential buyers.
“Now, if a very attractive offer was on the table, we would have to look at it very seriously,” he added.
France’s Sanofi, which has said it was actively looking for acquisitions in areas such as oncology, has not expressed public interest in Innate Pharma, but the two companies unveiled a research collaboration and licensing agreement last January.
(Editing by Ludwig Burger and David Goodman)