Immuno-Oncology Fever Rages as Novartis Snaps Up CoStim

How much is Big Pharma salivating over cancer immunotherapy these days? CoStim Pharmaceuticals, a little startup just about a year removed from its first big funding round, has already been snatched up by Swiss pharma giant Novartis.

Novartis has paid an undisclosed sum to acquire CoStim, a Cambridge, MA-based startup backed by MPM Capital, Atlas Venture, Johnson & Johnson Development Corp. (the venture arm of Johnson & Johnson), and Partners Innovation Fund. Little has been made public about CoStim so far, other than a few details about its founders and its mission—to develop cancer immunotherapies commonly known as “checkpoint inhibitors,” antibodies that remove a cloaking mechanism that tumors use to hide from the immune system.

Major drugmakers are counting on checkpoint inhibitors to be a key part of the next generation of combination cancer regimens. Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, and Roche/Genentech, for instance, are all developing these types of antibodies and taking them on a massive race through clinical trials. Many of the big pharmaceutical companies are even banding together to test these types of antibodies in tandem with a number of experimental or approved cancer drugs, trying to find the most effective combinations.

Novartis hasn’t been part of those tie-ups, but it is at the forefront—along with Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics—of another subsector of cancer immunotherapy. In 2012, it cut a deal with Carl June’s group at the University of Pennsylvania to develop “chimeric antigen receptor” modified T-cells, or CAR-T immunotherapy, which is supposed to use gene therapy to turn a patient’s T-cells into tumor killers. Novartis said in a statement that the CoStim buyout will give it “additional arrows in [its] quiver” to put together combination cancer regimens...

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