Aiming for immunotherapy boost, Bristol Myers deepens ties with Dragonfly



Dive Brief:

  • Bristol Myers Squibb has licensed from privately held biotech Dragonfly Therapeutics an experimental immunotherapy that it plans to test in blood cancers and solid tumors.

  • Bristol Myers will pay Dragonfly $475 million upfront in the “near-term,” though it didn’t specify how much it shelled out to start the deal. The agreement is the latest in a partnership Bristol Myers inherited when it acquired Celgene and has since expanded.

  • The treatment acquired by Bristol Myers relies on an inflammatory protein called IL-12 that’s long been considered a potential booster to immunotherapy drugs, but has yet to be proven helpful. Several of Bristol Myers’ competitors have shown interest in IL-12, among them Merck & Co., which is testing its drug Keytruda in a combination study with Dragonfly’s experimental medicine.

Dive Insight:

Dragonfly, an unusual startup backed by a high-powered group of family offices, has partnered with multiple large drugmakers since its formation in 2015 by cancer researcher Tyler Jacks.


Merck, AbbVie, and Bristol Myers have cut deals with the company, each drawn by a technology that focuses on natural killer cells, part of the body’s first response to foreign invaders.


Dragonfly’s technology links natural killer cells to tumor cells, a strategy that’s also meant to alert other immune defenders. The approach could be useful in cancer immmunotherapy, which only benefits some patients because many so-called “cold” tumors can evade the immune system altogether.


One of Dragonfly’s drugs is DF6002, a modified, longer-lasting version of the inflammatory cytokine IL-12. The cytokine has been viewed as a potential immunotherapy booster because of its ability to turn such ‘cold’ tumors ‘hot,’ but has been stymied by side effects and limited effectiveness. Nonetheless, several efforts are still underway attempting to harness IL-12 against cancer, among them gene therapies and drugs that fuse cytokines to antibodies.


Eli Lilly, for example, acquired an IL-12 drug when it bought Armo Biosciences in 2018. AstraZeneca and Moderna are working on one that’s based on messenger RNA technology. Called MED1191, it’s in a Phase 1 trial with AstraZeneca’s durvalumab. Ziopharm Oncology’s gene therapy is further along, in a Phase 2 study with the Regeneron immunotherapy Libtayo.


Merck, meanwhile, has already shown interest in Dragonfly’s technology. And last month, Dragonfly started a trial testing the drug together with Keytruda in patients with multiple solid tumor types. Results are expected in 2022, according to clinicaltrials.gov.


The deal now puts DF6002 in Bristol Myers’ hands. The company did not respond to questions from BioPharma Dive on whether it aims to continue the study involving Keytruda.

A Bristol Myers spokesperson wouldn’t break down the terms of the agreement with Dragonfly, saying only the company paid “fair value” for a license, which includes a 24% royalty for Dragonfly should DF6002 get to market. Bristol Myers plans to develop the drug for a variety of cancers, but didn’t disclose which.


The agreement deepens relationship that began in 2017 when Celgene invested in Dragonfly and became its first pharmaceutical partner. Bristol bought Celgene in 2019 and, while it hasn’t continued all of Celgene’s alliances, Dragonfly is one it has kept.


The pharma has so far licensed four candidates from Dragonfly for cancer and autoimmune diseases, and just last month, started a new research deal aimed at multiple sclerosis and other neuro-inflammatory conditions.