DUBLIN – Les Laboratoires Servier SAS has thrown its partner Symphogen A/S a lifeline by agreeing to a takeover deal in which the Danish firm will become Servier’s center of excellence for antibody development. Financial terms were not disclosed, but the deal looks like a good outcome for Symphogen employees, whom Servier plans to retain in what will continue to operate as a standalone organization.

Ballerup, Denmark-based Symphogen had been struggling with a heavy debt burden and had hoisted a for-sale sign last year, when a consortium of investors put together an $86 million rescue package that wiped out its other shareholders. That move bought it the time it needed to explore whatever level of market appetite existed for its Symplex antibody discovery platform.

Its partnership in immuno-oncology with Suresnes, France-based Servier originated with Baxalta in 2016 and survived several changes of ownership. The antibody discovery and development alliance, focused on up to six immune checkpoint targets, entailed $175 million up front, plus option fees and milestone payments of up to $1.6 billion more. Servier inherited the relationship in 2018 when it acquired Shire’s oncology unit for $2.4 billion.

The alliance has progressed quite smoothly – three programs are in the clinic and three more are in discovery or preclinical development. Sym-021, which targets PD-1, is undergoing a phase I trial in patients with metastatic solid tumors or lymphoma, as a monotherapy or in combination with either Sym-022, which targets the inhibitory receptor lymphocyte activation gene 3 (Lag-3), or Sym-023, which targets another inhibitory receptor T-cell immunoglobulin and mucin-domain-containing protein 3 (Tim-3). Sym-022 and Sym-023 are both undergoing phase I monotherapy trials, too.

Acquiring Symphogen at this point is therefore a good hedge against future payments that Servier may have to make, while giving it outright ownership of a large immuno-oncology pipeline. Oncology is a key growth pillar for Servier. In addition to its Symphogen-originated assets, it also has partnerships in allogeneic CAR T-cell therapy with Paris-based Cellectis SA and South San Francisco-based Allogene Therapeutics Inc., a second allogeneic CAR T partnership with Durham, N.C.-based Precision Biosciences Inc., and an alliance in bispecific antibodies with Boston-based Pieris Pharmaceuticals Inc.

But Symphogen’s future role within Servier will not be limited to cancer. “Antibody-based therapies remain a key therapeutic modality within oncology and immuno-oncology, and with Symphogen’s strong capabilities in the area, this acquisition will significantly boost Servier’s oncology pipeline and the group’s other therapeutic areas: cardiovascular, immune-inflammatory, and neurodegenerative diseases, and diabetes,” company spokeswoman Sonia Marques told BioWorld by email.

An existing alliance between Symphogen and the Genentech unit of Basel, Switzerland-based Roche Holding AG will also continue. It involves Sym-009, an antibody-antibiotic conjugate directed against Staphylococcus aureus, which is in a phase Ib trial. The program has more than $100 million in attached milestones. It remains an open question whether Servier will continue what had been Symphogen’s two key unencumbered assets. Sym-004, a two-antibody cocktail directed at endothelial growth factor receptor (EGFR), is ready to enter phase III development in metastatic colorectal cancer. Sym-015, which comprises a pair of antibodies targeting Met, is in a phase IIa trial in Met-amplified lung cancer.

Servier retains an appetite for further transactions, particularly in cancer. “The group does not exclude further strategic acquisitions in any of its therapeutic fields,” Marques said. “Priority will be given to oncology assets, ideally with market presence in the United States.”

Symphogen was originally established about two decades ago to take forward a polyclonal antibody technology it in-licensed from Boston University. Its original aim was to develop a safer replacement for plasma-derived immunoglobulins. It later developed its Symplex technology for rapid identification of antibodies, using a proprietary PCR method for cloning antigen-specific antibodies from single-sorted B cells purified from transgenic animals expressing the human antibody repertoire.

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