• AbbVie to pay $30 million upfront to co-develop anti-CD71 drug
  • CytomX drug platform designed to spare normal, healthy tissue

AbbVie Inc., moving to deepen its portfolio of oncology treatments, has inked a deal to gain access to CytomX Therapeutics Inc.’s platform of cancer drugs.

AbbVie will pay CytomX $30 million upfront and up to $470 million in milestone payments to jointly develop and commercialize an experimental cancer drug targeting a cellular marker called CD71, the companies said Thursday. AbbVie will gain similar rights on up to two additional targets, which would also trigger milestone and royalty payments.

AbbVie, based in North Chicago, Illinois, has been adding cancer drugs to reduce dependence on its top product, the rheumatoid arthritis treatment Humira. The company gained Imbruvica, a cancer therapy, in its acquisition of Pharmacyclics Inc. last year.

Earlier on Thursday, the company announced another oncology deal, paying $40 million upfront to the Belgian drugmaker Argenx to co-develop a drug targeting a protein that helps suppress certain immune cells. AbbVie agreed to pay Argenx up to $645 million in additional payments if certain goals are reached.


Safety Mechanism

“Partnering with companies and academic institutions with leading technology complements our strong internal pipeline in blood cancers and solid tumors,” said Michael Severino, AbbVie’s executive vice president of research and development, in an e-mail.

CytomX specializes in a type of drug called a Probody therapeutic, which the South San Francisco, California-based company says is safer than some other cancer treatments. Most drugs are designed to recognize cells that bear specific tumor markers. When those targets also appear on normal cells, the treatments can become toxic.

The biotech says it’s solved this problem by designing a drug with a safety mechanism. A “blocker” on the drug prevents it from becoming active until it recognizes an enzyme that’s only found on tumors, preventing harm to healthy tissues.

AbbVie is a “biologics powerhouse and has experience moving biologics into clinical development,” making them an attractive partner, said Sean McCarthy, CytomX’s chief executive officer, by telephone. Preclinical data on the anti-CD71 drug “had interested multiple companies,” he said.

CytomX is still in the early stages of developing its drugs, and none are in human trials. The biotech company presented data on its Probody therapeutics April 19 at the American Association for Cancer Research’s conference in New Orleans.

Tests showed the anti-CD71 drug was effective against many different types of tumor cells, and cynomolgus monkeys showed no adverse effects after prolonged exposure, Cowen & Co. analyst Boris Peaker said in a note to clients.

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