BioPharma, Pharma

AstraZeneca bets $75M on Scorpion’s precision approach to tough cancer targets

AstraZeneca’s partnership with Scorpion Therapeutics will focus on transcription factors that are known to play a role in cancer but have been difficult to target with small molecule drugs. Depending on the progress of the research, Scorpion could receive up to $1.5 billion in option fees and milestone payments.

AstraZeneca

 

Some proteins have known roles in the development and growth of cancer, but remain elusive to drugs, nonetheless. AstraZeneca is making a bet that Scorpion Therapeutics can design molecules capable of hitting such “undruggable” targets, and the pharmaceutical giant is paying $75 million to begin a new collaboration.

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The alliance will focus on transcription factors, a class of proteins that control gene expression and regulate cellular processes key to the growth and survival of cancer cells. The transcription factors covered by the deal were not disclosed. But according to terms announced Thursday, Boston-based Scorpion will lead the discovery work and certain preclinical activities. AstraZeneca has an exclusive option to license global rights for up to three drug candidates stemming from that research.

If the pharma giant exercises options on any molecules, it would be responsible for their further development and commercialization, if approved. The agreement gives Scorpion the option to co-develop and co-promote up to two of the three drugs. That option applies even if AstraZeneca exercises all three options on drug candidates. Option fees and milestone payments could bring Scorpion up to $1.5 billion more. If AstraZeneca commercializes drugs from the partnership, it will also owe Scorpion royalties from sales of those products.

Scorpion was co-founded in 2020 by serial biotech entrepreneur Gary Glick. The company kept a low profile until about a year ago, when it revealed a $162 million Series B round of funding that brought its total financing haul since inception to $270 million. The biotech designs new small molecules for undruggable targets by using a platform that combines technologies spanning medicinal chemistry, computational chemistry, cancer biology, and data science.

The Scorpion platform has yielded two disclosed programs so far, both of them in preclinical development. One targets mutated versions of a protein called PI3K alpha. While there are approved therapies that address this target, they also affect normal versions of the protein in healthy tissue, leading to side effects. Scorpion says its technology discovered a novel binding pocket specifically found in the mutant form of the protein.

The other disclosed Scorpion program is being developed to address non-small cell lung cancer tumors characterized by mutations at exon 20 of the signaling protein EGFR. This genetic signature is currently addressed by drugs from Johnson & Johnson and Takeda Pharmaceutical, both of which were approved last year. But Scorpion says that currently available drugs that target this mutation also hit normal EGFR protein, leading to toxic effects.

Photo: Christopher Furlong, Getty Images