JTX-2011, the driving force
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Aimed at developing innovative immunotherapies and predictive biomarkers to beat cancer, Jounce Therapeutics Inc. has launched a joint global strategic collaboration with Celgene Corp. The lucrative win-win deal gives Jounce an upfront payment of $225 million, a $36-million equity investment and up to an additional $2.3 billion in future milestone payments, while Celgene is poised to receive options to develop and commercialize Jounce’s lead experimental drug candidate, JTX-2011, and additional immunotherapies targeting B cells, T regulatory cells and tumor-associated macrophages.
“Jounce has built a unique immuno-oncology platform and pipeline with a focus on the development of novel cancer therapies matched to patient populations most likely to respond,” said Robert Hershberg, chief scientific officer at Celgene. “This collaboration allows both companies to leverage broad capabilities in immuno-oncology to bring forward a new generation of product candidates for cancer patients.”
“Celgene is the ideal partner to collaborate with Jounce to bring potentially transformational treatments to patients with cancer,” Richard Murray, CEO of Jounce, added in a statement. “This partnership is of significant strategic value for Jounce. With Celgene as our partner, we can broaden our platform, advance our discovery programs and execute comprehensive clinical strategies—all in the context of our approach to bring the right immunotherapies to the right patient populations.”
As Jounce notes of its efforts, “Our research and development strategy is to target specific mechanisms that match the composition of the immune system within the human tumor microenvironment (TME), with the goal of transforming the treatment of cancer by developing therapies that enable the immune system to attack tumors and bring long-lasting benefits to patients. Our lead program, JTX-2011—an ICOS agonist monoclonal antibody—complements existing cancer immunotherapies, such as anti-PD-1 therapies, by binding to and activating ICOS, stimulating an immune response against the cancer.”
JTX-2011, which seeks to treat head and neck cancer and non-small cell lung cancer, is expected to enter the clinic in the second half of 2016. The deal with Celgene also includes options on four other cancer immunotherapies in Jounce’s research pipeline.
The Jounce-Celgene alliance is considered one of the largest between early-stage biotechs seeking money and expertise and larger drug makers looking for new treatments. At the same time, both parties benefit from sharing the costs—and the risks—of developing new drugs.
The collaboration also calls for Celgene to have the option to opt in at defined stages of development across the programs. Following any opt-in, Celgene and Jounce stand to share U.S. profits and losses on all programs.
The terms of agreement call for Jounce to retain a 60-percent U.S. profit share of JTX-2011, with 40 percent allocated to Celgene, while Jounce will retain a 25-percent U.S. profit share on the first additional program, with 75 percent allocated to Celgene.
In addition, Jounce and Celgene will equally share U.S. profits on up to three additional programs; after opt-in, all development costs will be shared in a manner that is commensurate with product rights. The collaboration also calls for Celgene to receive exclusive ex-U.S. commercialization rights for each of the programs, while Jounce is eligible to receive a royalty on any resulting ex-U.S. sales. Celgene and Jounce will equally share profits globally for the checkpoint program.
Jounce’s name, derived partly from a physics term and partly from a synonym for jolt, is meant to signal the dramatic change the company and its financial backers expect from their cancer-fighting approach, which it calls immuno-oncology 2.0.
Most first-generation cancer immunotherapies, like Keytruda, are so-called PD-1 inhibitors that empower a specific T cell to kill tumors. While they can be effective for up to a third of patients, the majority fail to respond.
“There’s been a kind of a gold rush in the oncology business over the past six or seven years,” Murray said in an interview with the Boston Globe. “We’re locking in the correct way of using the immune system against tumors, but we’re also seeing that not all patients respond to this approach. Our immuno-oncology 2.0 approach looks at the entire immune system and provokes different immune cell types to target the 70 to 80 percent of patients that aren’t responding” to current drugs.
According to Murray, JTX-2011, which targets solid tumors, “steps on the gas” of T cells to generate more robust antitumor activity. He says that Celgene, a leader in hematology treatments, could help Jounce also develop blood cancer drugs.
The eventual value of the deal for Jounce will depend on how many options Celgene exercises and the success of any drugs developed.