AbbVie upscales Voyager alliance with new target, more cash

AbbVie has extended its collaboration with gene therapy specialist Voyager Therapeutics, adding a new programme in Parkinson’s disease and another $1.5 billion in potential fees.

The two started working together on “vectorised” antibodies targeting tau protein for Alzheimer’s disease around a year ago. Now, AbbVie wants to tap Voyager’s expertise in Parkinson’s and other central nervous system diseases with antibodies that target a misfolded protein.

Voyager’s approach involves developing adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors that can transfer gene sequences coding for therapeutic antibodies into the CNS, allowing the drugs to be produced in situ rather than dosed systemically. In the latest project, the antibodies target alpha-synuclein, a protein that aggregates into clumps in the brain in Parkinson’s as well as other neurodegenerative diseases such as Lewy body dementia and multiple system atrophy (MSA).

AbbVie is paying $65 million in upfront cash, another $245 million tied to a phase I programme and opt-in payments, plus $728 million in development milestones for each vectorised alpha-synuclein antibody that proceeds through development. Also on offer is up to $500 million in commercial milestones plus royalties for each antibody.

It’s similar in structure to the earlier agreement in Alzheimer’s, which included a $69 million upfront payment, $155 million in phase 1 and opt-in fees and $895 million per antibody in downstream milestones.

Voyager’s vectorised antibodies sidestep a prominent problem with using traditional antibody drugs to target CNS disease, namely that it can be challenging to get them across the blood brain barrier in order to deliver their therapeutic effect unless doses are pushed very high, which raises the risk of side effects.

Using a gene therapy-like approach, the sequences coding for the vectorised antibodies are designed to be administered intravenously just once, and yet still reach CNS levels of antibody well above that which can be achieved with traditional dosing.

“The expansion of AbbVie’s partnership with Voyager represents the potential we see in the ability of its vectorised antibody platform to surpass the blood-brain barrier and more effectively deliver biologic therapies,” said AbbVie’s head of neuroscience research Jim Summers.

“We are hopeful that Voyager’s technology will enable further development of transformative treatments for patients with neurodegenerative diseases.”

It’s not only Voyager’s vectorised antibody approach that has helped it pick up big-ticket deals. Last month, it agreed a $1.8 billion alliance with Neurocrine Biosciences for ‘conventional’ gene therapies targeting Parkinson’s disease and Friedreich’s ataxia.

The upgraded deal with AbbVie and the link-up with Neurocrine will help Voyager lay to rest concerns that emerged when its earlier Parkinson’s gene therapy partner – Sanofi’s Genzyme subsidiary – opted to return rights in 2017. At the time, Voyager said the decision came about because it was reluctant to hand over US rights to the therapy.

Voyager’s share price closed up almost 23% on news of AbbVie’s expanded collaboration.

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