Ligand grows in cancer again with $100m Apeiron takeover


Ligand Pharmaceuticals has made its second major acquisition in 2024, agreeing a $100 million deal to buy Austria’s Apeiron Biologics and a royalty stream for brain cancer drug Qarziba.

Qarziba (dinutuximab beta) is on the market in 35 ex-US markets for the treatment of high-risk neuroblastoma in patients aged 12 months and above. It is sold by Recordati in all markets except for China, where BeiGene has rights, with both licensees paying undisclosed royalties.

The deal includes an additional payment to Apeiron shareholders of $28 million if Qarziba royalties exceed a certain threshold by either 2030 or 2034, and is expected to close before the end of the month.

It comes after Ligand paid $75 million to Agenus in order to give it an interest in multiple oncology products across targets and indications, including a royalty stream on botensilimab/balstilimab, also known as bot/bal, which is heading for a phase 3 trial in metastatic, relapsed, or refractory colorectal cancer.

In a statement, Florida-based Ligand said the deal adds the sixth asset to its commercial portfolio since the start of 2023, part of a growth strategy “to invest in high-value medicines that deliver significant clinical value and generate predictable and long-term revenue streams for our investors.”

That list also includes Verona Pharma’s first-in-class chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) therapy Ohtuvayre (ensifentrine) – tipped as a future blockbuster – which earned Ligand a $5.8 million milestone on FDA approval last month, with another $13.8 million due on launch, as well as single-digit royalties.

In its first-quarter update, Ligand said it expects to make $90-$95 million in royalties this year out of total revenues of $130-$142 million, with the remainder coming from contract revenues and sales of its Captisol excipient used in pharma formulations. The company expects the new deal to raise its 2024 revenues to the $140-$157 million range.

“Qarziba is the only immunotherapy for high-risk neuroblastoma marketed across Europe and in other parts of the world,” said Ligand's chief executive, Todd Davis. “We believe this drug will be a meaningful contributor to our royalty revenue, which is now driven by a diversified portfolio of 12 key commercial-stage products.”

Ligand is also committing a $4 million investment in a company that has spun off from Apeiron to take forwards early-stage pipeline projects following after Quarziba, and is in line for royalties and milestone payments if they progress.

The spin-off, called invIOs, has three immuno-oncology programmes on the go led by APN401, a Cbl-b-targeting autologous cell therapy in phase 1 testing for solid tumours.