GSK answers critics with $2bn deal to become world-leader in cancer therapy

·3 min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Drug-making giant GlaxoSmithKline today announced a $2 billion tie-up with a US-based biotech to strengthen its lacklustre drugs pipeline in advance of a long-awaited corporate split.

The group said the deal with Boston-based iTeos Therapeutics will place its pharma and vaccines arm at the forefront of research into next-generation treatment for a range of cancers.

Under the deal, worth $625 million upfront with another $1.45 billion in milestone payments, the two companies will co-develop and market a monoclonal antibody which targets part of the immune system — known as checkpoint CD226 — to help the body fight tumours.

It is the latest of more than 20 buy-ups and partnerships announced in the past 12 months as GSK shores up cancer and vaccine research, before cleaving its pharma and consumer divisions into two separate companies.

The announcement follows a bruising weekend of briefings which saw insiders attempt to pin blame for GSK’s “flat-footed” Covid-19 vaccine response - compared to that of FTSE 100 rival AstraZeneca - onto CEO Dame Emma Walmsley.

Some shareholders say it has solidified doubts over whether Walmsley, who lacks a strong science background, should lead the new pharma company as planned.

But her supporters respond that the £70 billion supertanker of a company she inherited in 2017 will take at least a decade to turn around, a process that is now apace after four years at the helm.

Either way, there is pressure to impress investors — including famously aggressive US hedge fund Elliott Management which has built up a multibillion-pound stake — at a capital markets day on June 23, when details of next year’s split will be formally unveiled.

It will be its biggest restructuring since Glaxo Wellcome merged with SmithKline Beecham in 2000 to create the company in its present form.

And with shares down around 15% over Walmsley’s four-year tenure, much is riding on deals such as the one announced today.

GSK said the tie-up will make it the only pharma company with access to antibodies that block all three known cancer checkpoints at the key CD226 axis.

It already partners with genetic testing company 23andMe and Surface Oncology on the two others, CD96 and PVRIG.

The TIGIT inhibitor being developed by iTeos — which went public on the Nasdaq last summer with a $200million valuation — completes the set.

Researchers will deploy different combinations of treatments against the three targets, each of which can turn the immune system off and prevent it from fighting cancer, to evaluate their effectiveness against multiple cancers.

GSK chief scientific officer Dr Hal Barron said immuno-oncology — the science of harnessing a patient’s immune system to fight tumours — had transformed cancer care but less than 30 percent of patients respond to treatment with existing checkpoint inhibitors.

He said: “Based on the underlying science, we believe that combinations of a PD-1, TIGIT, CD96 and PVRIG inhibitor could become transformative medicines for many patients with cancer.

“We are excited to collaborate with the team at iTeos and together we can play a leading role in the next generation of immuno-oncology therapies.”

The group, which employs 94,000, has had relatively few blockbuster launches of late and relies on its existing portfolio of products, of which 14 will lose their patents in the next decade.

But latest analysis suggests there are more than 20 assets in its late-stage pipeline which could hit the market by 2026.

Michel Detheux, president and CEO, iTeos said: “Through this transformative collaboration, iTeos now has access to GSK’s best-in-class resources which will provide us with a significant advantage in a highly competitive, global market.”

Shares in iTeos shot up 50% in pre-market trading on the Nasdaq. Having risen and fallen sharply since the launch at $19 last July jumped 48.2% to $29.69c.

GSK’s share price continued their upward trajectory this month, up 7p or 0.5%, to 1410.4p.

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