Roche Focuses on T Regulatory Cells in $758 Million Acquisition of Tusk Therapeutics


Swiss-based Roche announced it is buying UK-based Tusk Therapeutics in a deal that could hit $758 million (U.S.).

Under the terms of the acquisition, Roche is paying $81 million upfront with another possible $677 million in various milestone payments.

This is another deal in the immuno-oncology area. Tusk focuses on developing therapeutic antibodies to treat cancer. It currently has two lead programs, CD25 and CD38. The focus is on T regulatory cells (Tregs).

Jonathan Gardner, writing for Vantage, says, “The UK group’s focus on trendy T regulatory cells (Tregs) in immuno-oncology certainly did not hurt its case, as the biopharma world casts around for ways to magnify the benefit of PD-(L)1 agents like Roche’s Tecentriq. The rationale is that by turning off the immunosuppressive effects of Tregs, PD-(L)1 agents will work even better.”

Both CD25 and CD37 are the targets of the company’s two programs, both in Phase I clinical studies. It is believed that Tregs target both CD25 and CD37. CD38 is the target of Johnson & Johnsons Darzalex, where it inhibits growth of CD38-positive multiple myeloma cells. Tusk hopes to develop its compound in solid tumors.

“We are delighted that Roche will further develop this novel antibody and drive the development ahead,” said Luc Dochez, Tusk’s chief executive officer, in a statement. “The remaining portfolio of our immune-oncology targets will be further developed by Black Belt Therapeutics, a newly formed company spun out of Tusk Therapeutics.”

Tusk was founded in 2014 by Droia Oncology Ventures. It is built on the work of Sergio Quezada, professor in the Research Department of Haematology at the University College London (UCL) Cancer Institute in London. The company has strategic partnerships and licensing deals with Cancer Research Technology, Cancer Research UKs commercial arm and UCL.

Gardner writes, “In acquiring Tusk, Roche became the first big pharma to complete a Treg deal focused on oncology. Lilly’s license of NKTR-358, a Treg stimulator, is focused on stimulating Tregs to fight lupus, while Novartis’s deal with Parvus is related to Treg downregulation of beta cell-destroying immune cells in type 1 diabetes.”

In late-August, AbbVie exercised its exclusive license option to develop and commercialize Belgium-based Argenx’s ARGX-115. The compound is an antibody that targets novel immuno-oncology target glycoprotein A repetitions predominant (GARP).

ARGX-115 is currently in preclinical studies. The compound binds specifically to GARP, which is key in regulating production and release of active transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta). The companies believe the compound can selectively limit the immunosuppressive activity of activated regulatory T-cells. This results in stimulating the immune system to attack cancer cells.

The compound was discovered under Argenx’s Innovative Access Program with the de Duve Institute at the Catholique University of Louvain and WELBIO. It was then licensed under a research and option deal in 2013.

And in July, BioLineRx, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Merck & Co., based in Kenilworth, New Jersey, announced they are expanding their immuno-oncology collaboration.

The collaboration revolves around the combination of BioLineRx’s BL-8040 in combination with Merck’s Keytruda (pembrolizumab), an anti-PD-1 therapy, in patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer. This is currently in a Phase IIa clinical trial. Under the expansion agreement, they will investigate a triple combination looking at the safety, tolerability and efficacy of BL-8040, Keytruda and chemotherapy.

In earlier work presented at ASCO 2018 Gastrointestinal Cancers Symposium in January, BL-8040 as a monotherapy was found to be safe and well tolerated and increased infiltration of T-cells into the tumor in metastatic pancreatic cancer patients. It also caused an increase in the number of total immune cells in the peripheral blood, while peripheral blood regulatory T-cells (Tregs), which can slow anti-tumor immune response, decreased. Topline data for the combination is expected to be released in the second half of this year.

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