Novartis Eyes Up to $1.5 Billion for Gene Therapy Firm

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The prize Novartis has its eyes on is, well, eyes.

The Swiss healthcare giant announced Wednesday it’s buying British biotech Gyroscope Therapeutics, adding to a growing portfolio of gene therapies for eye diseases. Novartis agreed to immediately pay $800 million, but could owe additional payments up to $700 million if Gyroscope meets agreed upon targets. Either way, one of the world’s biggest healthcare firms is positioned for a full court press to beat vision loss.

The $2 Million Dollar Question

Drug developers have rushed to invest in gene therapies because they could be one-time treatment options for tons of challenging conditions. The experimental treatments work by introducing genetic material into someone’s cells, ordering them to make proteins that can treat or stop diseases.

Novartis has been on a spending spree for gene therapies, with its eyes focused intensely on eyes. Last year, it bought Massachusetts-based Vedere Bio for $280 million and this year added Swiss startup Arctos Medical for an undisclosed amount. Both companies were developing technologies to restore vision through gene therapies that order eye cells to make light-sensing proteins.

Gyroscope has been developing a more specific experimental gene therapy for a condition called geographic atrophy, a form of age-related macular degeneration that is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 60. All these treatments, however, face an uncertain path forward:

  • The gene therapy field has been rocked by the death of several trial participants, including this week when Pfizer suspended a study on an experimental treatment for a rare neuromuscular disease after a patient died.
  • Gene therapies are incredibly expensive if they do make it to market — Novartis’ own Zolgensma, which treats spinal muscular atrophy, costs $2 million.

Eye for an Eye: The Gyroscope acquisition is Novartis’s first since it sold a stake in its Swiss rival Roche back to the company for $20.7 billion in November. The two have gone back to facing off almost immediately: earlier this week Roche bought its own experimental, cell-based therapy drug for a blinding eye condition from Lineage Cell Therapeutics for $50 million. Keep your enemies closer, as they say.