Novartis Buys Mariana Oncology in $1B Acquisition, Bolsters Radiopharma Assets

Novartis_iStock, Kannan D

Pictured: Novartis headquarters in Basel, Switzerland/iStock, Kannan D

Novartis pushed deeper into radioligand therapy Thursday, announcing a $1 billion buyout that will give it control of Mariana Oncology’s preclinical cancer pipeline and clinical supply capabilities.

The Swiss drugmaker is paying $1 billion and committing up to $750 million in milestones to add Mariana to its stable of radiopharmaceutical assets. Mariana quickly emerged as a well-financed player in the hot radioligand space, exiting stealth with $75 million in 2021 and following up with a $175 million Series B financing round in 2023.

Massachusetts-based Mariana has used the money to establish a pipeline led by MC-339. The candidate consists of a peptidic small molecule engineered to carry a radioactive actinium payload. By using a small molecule to deliver the payload to an undisclosed target, Mariana could administer a dose of actinium that is fatal to small cell lung cancer cells without causing unbearable harm to healthy tissue.

Mariana was aiming to move MC-339 into the clinic in 2024 when it raised the Series B round last year. To support its move into human testing, the biotech has established radiopharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities. Novartis noted the acquired clinical supply capabilities among the positives of Thursday’s deal.

Radiopharmaceuticals pose distinct manufacturing challenges. Radioisotopes have short half-lives and a relatively small number of facilities are equipped to produce and handle the molecules. Novartis ran into problems last year, delaying access to its approved radioligand therapy Pluvicto. However, CEO Vas Narasimhan said on an earnings call in April 2024 that “supply performance is now consistently at a very high level with over 99.5% of injections administered on the planned day.”

Mariana is not set up for commercial supply but has invested to support its clinical trials. The biotech also has research infrastructure that will add to the capabilities that Novartis has created and picked up through deals in recent years.

Novartis was ahead of the radiopharmaceutical trend. In 2018, the company closed acquisitions of Advanced Accelerator Applications and Endocyte, paying a total of $6 billion to add Lutathera and the candidate now sold as Pluvicto to its portfolio.

Rival drugmakers followed Novartis into the radiopharma space, with AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly paying between $1.4 billion and $4.1 billion to acquire biotechs that specialize in the modality in recent months. Novartis has continued to seek out technologies as well, leading to deals with 3B Pharmaceuticals, Bicycle Therapeutics and PeptiDream over the past year or so.

Novartis has added to its radioligand capabilities while buying treatments that kill cancer cells via different mechanisms. This year, the company has struck deals to buy MorphoSys for 2.7 billion euros ($2.9 billion) and license Arvinas’ Phase III-ready protein degrader for $150 million.

Nick Paul Taylor is a freelance pharmaceutical and biotech writer based in London. He can be reached on LinkedIn.

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