Why Bristol-Myers Squibb just made a $1.85 billion bet on a cancer drug

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Cancer immunotherapy Reuters Protein analysis tubes are seen in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, Britain.

  • Bristol-Myers Squibb is paying Nektar Therapeutics $1.85 billion for a promising cancer drug.
  • As part of the deal, $1 billion of that cash is upfront in exchange for 35% of the global profits for the drug, known as NKTR-214.
  • NKTR-214 is a kind of cancer immunotherapy treatment known as an interleukin-2 agonist, and the hope is to use it in combination with other treatments to boost the body's immune reaction to cancer.


Bristol-Myers Squibb is making a billion-dollar bet on an experimental cancer drug that goes after the body's immune system.

The drug, NKTR-214, is being developed by Nektar Therapeutics. BMS and Nektar have partnered over the drug in the past, when looking to see how the drug works in combination with BMS's drug Opdivo.

As part of Wednesday's deal, $1 billion of that cash is upfront in exchange for 35% of the global profits for the drug. The drug is currently in clinical trials testing out how the drug works in combination with Opdivo in people with certain types of cancer including breast and kidney.

It's a high price tag, making it one of the largest up-front fees a pharmaceutical company has paid for a single drug.

The hope is that the drug can enhance the work that the checkpoints are doing, and in turn getting it to work in more people, expanding the field of immuno-oncology.

"We now have a third validated I-O mechanism that has demonstrated a clinical benefit in patients, and holds significant potential to expand the benefits that these immuno-oncology agents can bring to patients with cancer," BMS CEO Giovanni Caforio said in a release.

Boosting cancer immunotherapy

Some of the biggest cancer treatment successes in the past few years have come from a relatively new field called cancer immunotherapy, in which the body's immune system is manipulated to treat the disease.

Opdivo and Yervoy - drugs owned by BMS that the company will study in combination with Nektar's drug - are known as checkpoint inhibitors, drugs that tell the immune system to take the foot off the brakes and go after cancer cells it might not have otherwise attacked.

NKTR-214, on the other hand, is aimed at activating proteins that signal the body's immune system, specifically ones known as IL-2. The hope is by going after IL-2, the body might produce more T cells that'll go after cancer cells, ultimately helping patients get cancer-free. In the car analogy, NKTR-214 is essentially aiming to put more gas in the engine for when the brake gets released.

Finding new ways to enhance the body's reactions to cancer cells is key to getting cancer immunotherapy to work in more people.

So far, treatments like the checkpoint inhibitors have had a lot of success treating some patients, but not all .

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