UK biotech Dunad inks $1.3bn Novartis deal for its protein degraders

In only its second year of operations, Cambridge, UK startup Dunad Therapeutics has already attracted a big pharma partner for its protein degradation platform.

Swiss group Novartis has swooped in with a backloaded option deal that includes $24 million upfront in cash and equity – plus up to $1.3 billion in milestones – and covers drug candidates against up to four disease targets.

Protein degrader drugs harness the natural protein-denaturing machinery in cells to remove rogue proteins associated with disease, and has been proposed as a way to address a wide range of ‘undruggable’ targets.

The approach has become a hot topic in biopharma with a string of big ticket partnerships over the last couple of years, including a $2.4 billion alliance between Pfizer and Arvinas for a breast cancer candidate in phase 2 that included a whopping $1 billion upfront payment.

Others include a $1.6 billion deal between Eli Lilly and Lycia focusing on up to five targets, initially in immunological disease and pain, along with earlier partnerships involving Bayer/Arvinas as well as Gilead and Nurix.

Dunad’s development programmes are still in the early stages, but Novartis has been attracted by the potential of its platform, which involves the use of “tuneable” small-molecule drugs that can be delivered in tablet form.

In the Novartis collaboration, Dunad will also be responsible for the programmes up to the lead optimisation stage, with the Swiss drugmaker providing expertise on disease targets as well as proving access to related assays and models.

If it exercises its option, Novartis will assume responsibility for future development, manufacturing and global commercialisation of therapeutics arising from the alliance.

Dunad’s founding investor Epidarex Capital said the licensing deal endorses the startup’s core technology and “emphasises the importance of this new modality to generating new drugs for multiple diseases.”

Epidarex launched together with founders Prof Patrick Gunning and Dr Diana Kraskouskaya as a spin-out from the University of Toronto in Canada.

Alongside Novartis, BioGeneration Ventures (BGV) has also come onboard as a new investor, with general partner Oskar Slotboom joining the biotech’s board.

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