In atypical Big Pharma-VC pact, Gilead secures $210M from Abingworth to fund Trodelvy trials

Venture capital firms pitching in on drug development isn’t exactly a new way of doing business for the biopharma industry. But a new funding pact between Carlyle’s Abingworth and Gilead Sciences is somewhat unconventional.

Abingworth will offer Gilead up to $210 million to support select clinical studies of the California pharma’s antibody-drug conjugate Trodelvy, with a focus on non-small cell lung cancer, the life sciences group of the investment firm Carlyle said Thursday.

In exchange, Abingworth will receive a fixed payment upon regulatory approval in a pre-specified indication, plus royalties based on Trodelvy’s U.S. sales within NSCLC. Gilead still owns Trodelvy.

The timely financing for Trodelvy comes as the TROP2-directed ADC recently hit a clinical setback. The deal helps Gilead shoulder some financial risks related to the further development of a drug that’s billed as the cornerstone of the company’s burgeoning solid tumor business.

In the phase 3 EVOKE-01 trial, Trodelvy didn’t significantly extend the lives of patients with previously treated metastatic NSCLC compared with the chemotherapy docetaxel, Gilead revealed last month.

Although the study failed on its primary endpoint, Gilead said it remained confident in Trodelvy’s potential in NSCLC, pointing to numerical overall survival improvements across patients with both squamous and nonsquamous tumors, as well as a three-month advantage in median overall survival in a subgroup of patients who didn’t respond to prior-line PD-1/L1 therapy.

As of early this month, Gilead was evaluating its next steps and planned to discuss the data with regulators, CEO Dan O’Day said on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call on Feb. 6.

In addition, Gilead didn’t plan to make changes to the phase 3 EVOKE-03 trial, which is testing Trodelvy alongside Merck’s Keytruda in newly diagnosed NSCLC patients with high PD-L1 expressions, Chief Medical Officer Merdad Parsey, M.D., Ph.D., said on the call.

Gilead didn’t immediately respond to a Fierce Pharma request for an update.

In addition to the standard financing rounds for biotech companies, investment firms have increasingly been stepping in to fill clinical development financing gaps at biopharma shops large and small. For example, Blackstone in 2022 committed 300 million euros to support clinical development of Sanofi’s multiple myeloma drug Sarclisa, a direct competitor to Johnson & Johnson’s blockbuster Darzalex.

The Abingworth-Gilead deal also includes a non-monetary collaboration. As part of the agreement, Gilead will form a clinical development joint steering committee with Launch Therapeutics, an Abingworth/Carlyle portfolio company offering capital and clinical expertise to biopharma partners. 

This isn’t the first deal that Abingworth/Carlyle have signed with Launch Therapeutics. Back in August 2022, Launch made its debut as part of Abingworth/Carlyle’s $170 million clinical financing deal to propel Opthera’s wet age-related macular degeneration candidate, OPT-302.

Still, it’s not usual for Big Pharma companies, which are themselves relied on as financing resources for young biotechs, to reach for VC funding for a specific drug. Besides, while joint steering committees may be common between two biopharma companies collaborating on clinical development programs, Launch’s direct involvement in the clinical development of a specific drug at a Big Pharma company isn’t a usual financing structure.