AstraZeneca Licenses NASH Drug from Ionis Worth a Potential $330+ Million


Investors in Ionis Pharmaceuticals are happy this morning after the California-based company announced it struck another licensing deal with AstraZeneca that has the potential to yield up to $330 million. This is the second deal the two companies have struck in the past two months and strengthens a long-term partnership between them.

AstraZeneca has licensed IONIS-AZ6-2.5-L, which has been redubbed AZD2693. The newly licensed drug is designed to inhibit an undisclosed target to treat patients with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).

The prevalence of NASH, a severe form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), is increasing worldwide in part due to the increase of obesity and diabetes diagnoses. In the United States NASH affects 2 to 5 percent of people. There are currently no specific treatments aside from weight loss, increased physical activity and avoiding alcohol and unnecessary medications. NASH is projected to become the leading indication for liver transplant by 2020.

Brett Monia, Ionis’ chief operating officer and head of antisense drug discovery and translational medicine, noted that IONIS-AZ6-2.5-L is the third drug to enter development with AstraZeneca. The companies have a strategic collaboration aimed at the development of treatments for cardiovascular, renal and metabolic diseases. Monia said IONIS-AZ6-2.5-L includes Ionis’ LIgand-Conjugated Antisense (LICA) and Generation 2.5 chemistry. That marks IONIS-AZ6-2.5-L as the second drug that is part of the AstraZeneca partnership to include both modifications.

“By combining Generation 2.5 and LICA, we generate drugs that have the advantages of both higher affinity chemistry and efficient cell-specific targeting. This combination provides us with drugs that are substantially more potent than either Generation 2.5 or LICA alone, and supports administration of infrequent, very low doses, and even enables the potential for oral dosing," Monia said in a statement.

Under terms of the deal, AstraZeneca will pay a $30 million license fee to Ionis and be responsible for further development and commercialization. If key milestones and commercial strategies are realized Ionis could earn up to another $300 million.

In February AstraZeneca licensed IONIS-AZ5-2.5, which is designed to inhibit an undisclosed target as part of a treatment for a genetically associated form of kidney disease. The deal struck by the two companies in February mirrors the financial terms disclosed for the NASH program.

The NASH market is becoming a crowded one. Last week startup company Terns Pharmaceuticals announced it had licensed three NASH programs from Eli Lilly. Additionally, other companies have invested large sums of money into developing NASH therapies. Companies like Takeda Pharmaceuticals, Allergan and Gilead Sciences have all invested heavily into the space. In 2016 Allergan went on a buying spree to acquire multiple NASH developmental products. In 2016 Bristol-Myers Squibb slammed down $100 million to acquire rights for a NASH program from Osaka, Japan-based Nitto Denko Corporation.

Shares of Ionis are up more than 3 percent today to $42.15 as of 11:45 a.m.

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