Bristol Myers Squibb likes what it sees from the immune cell research of Dragonfly Therapeutics so far—enough to pay $55 million to add multiple sclerosis and neuroinflammation to their ongoing partnership.
The alliance came to New York-based Bristol (NYSE: BMY) via its acquisition of Celgene last year. The original 2017 deal covered the development of up to four blood cancer drugs. The partnership expanded the following year to cover four more drug targets. As of last November, Celgene had opted to exercise rights to three of the Waltham, MA-based biotech’s drug candidates.
The latest expansion announced Monday grants Bristol the option to license exclusive global rights to multiple drug candidates addressing neurological targets. If it exercises those rights, Dragonfly would become eligible for an undisclosed amount of milestone payments tied to the development and regulatory progress of the programs, plus royalties from sales of any approved products.
Dragonfly is developing therapies based on natural killer (NK) cells. These cells are part of the innate immune system and they take on viruses, parasites, and tumors. NK cells also activate other immune cells to mount a response.
Cancer was Dragonfly’s initial focus. The company’s technology develops drugs that bind to the proteins on the surfaces of both cancer cells and NK cells. That binding sparks two actions. First, the NK cell is stimulated to directly kill the cancer cell. Second, the NK cell alerts other immune cells to also take on the cancer cells. Dragonfly calls its technology platform “TriNKET,” which is a portmanteau of “tri-specific NK cell engager therapies.”
Bristol isn’t Dragonfly’s only R&D partner. The startup also has research deals with Merck (NYSE: MRK) in cancer, infectious diseases, and immune disorders, and with AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) in cancer and autoimmune diseases.
The expansion of the Bristol R&D pact comes less than four months after Dragonfly announced its latest financing had brought its fundraising total to more than $300 million. At that time, it said it was eligible for up to $10 billion in milestone payments. Maura McCarthy, Dragonfly’s vice president of corporate development, said in an email that the company’s first wholly owned cancer program began clinical testing last year and preliminary data are expected in early 2021. The first partnered programs are expected to begin human testing early next year, she added.
Here’s more on the origins of Dragonfly, which was formed in 2015 through the collaboration of cancer research pioneers and the financial backing of family offices, including one associated with the Disney family.