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Boehringer Ingelheim decided 3 years ago it that would take an active role in fostering the oncolytics virus biotech ViraTherapeutics.
The German company’s venture arm invested in the fledgling’s biotech’s tiny $4 million A round in the summer of 2015. BI execs came back with a $230 million discovery deal — building in a buyout option — and then added a second program. And this morning they’re going all in, buying the company in a deal valued at $244 million.
BI is keeping the company — a spinout of Austria’s Medical University of Innsbruck — right where it is, adding the group and the regional connections they have on campus as a subsidiary as they look to jump into the clinic with a lead program.
Boehringer first tied up with ViraTherapeutics just months ahead of Amgen’s landmark approval of T-Vec, the world’s first marketed oncolytic virus. And since then the field has exploded with new research projects as dozens of new players brewed up to beat the pioneer.
Earlier this year J&J executed one of its classic billion-dollar deals to buy BeneVir. Merck’s R&D chief Roger Perlmutter — who steered the T-Vec deal at Amgen — bagged Viralytics for $394 million. A recent study from the Cancer Research Institute found 69 OVs in clinical development and another 95 in a preclinical program.
What’s the big deal?
Oncolytic viruses are the Trojan horse of immuno-oncology. The viruses are designed to infect cancer cells, invading the disease, and then exploding them, which subsequently signals the immune system to mount an attack on the survivors. There’s a clear clinical track record showing how they work. And now a host of rivals like PsiOxus and many, many others believe that systemic administration will do a better job.
ViraTherapeutics execs — led by MorphoSys vet Heinz Schwer — have also been busy engineering an OV therapy that they believe can do a better job of initially evading detection by the immune system, avoiding triggering any antibodies and theoretically making it possible to do repeat administrations.
Not surprisingly, BI also plans to whip up a pipeline of combination approaches, arming their OV with cancer drugs that can both amp up the immune system attack and charge directly at cancer cells.