CoStim Pharmaceuticals has been acquired by Novartis for an undisclosed amount, the venture investor owners of the cancer monoclonal antibody drug startup said yesterday. The deal strengthens the pharma giant’s cancer pipeline at a time it is working to recoup patent-cliff losses as well as find a permanent successor to the recently departed head of its oncology business.

The deal adds CoStim’s immunotherapy programs, one of which targets PD-1, the same receptor being targeted by other compounds in development, such as Merck’s MK-3475.

Two executives of MPM Capital—Luke Evnin, a managing director, and Robert Millman, managing director-operations—co-founded CoStim in 2012. They sought to build on work by Harvard University Arlene Sharpe, M.D., Ph.D., that was presented at the 2010 MPM Medical and Scientific Advisory meeting. Dr. Sharpe described how T cells respond to positive and negative inputs from their environment and how blocking negative signals could be even more important for anticancer T cell activity than further activating T cells.

Working with Dr. Sharpe and her scientific co-founders, Gordon Freeman and Vijay Kuchroo, CoStim assembled a portfolio of agents directed at multiple T cell regulatory targets via relationships established with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Immutep SA.

MPM provided initial capital to found CoStim, and later co-led the formal Series A investment in early 2013 with Atlas Venture. Additional investors included Johnson & Johnson Development Corp. and the Partners Innovation Fund.

Millman initially served as president of CoStim, and Evnin as its chairman. The company later hired Dan Hicklin, Ph.D., as CSO and president.

“We are excited about the potential of CoStim’s portfolio of immunotherapies and pleased to be joining Novartis to further advance these molecules,” Dr. Hicklin said.

CoStim will broaden a cancer portfolio facing the end of patent protection for one of the company’s best-selling oncology drugs, Gleevec. The pipeline may yet produce an oncology success judging from a recent clinical trial: Novartis said in December its investigational compound LBH589 (panobinostat) in combination with bortezomib and dexamethasone met the primary endpoint of significantly extending progression-free survival (PFS) in patients with relapsed or relapsed and refractory multiple myeloma compared to bortezomib and dexamethasone alone.

“Given its mechanism of action, LBH589 has the potential to be an important treatment option for multiple myeloma,” Alessandro Riva, global head, Oncology Development and Medical Affairs, Novartis Oncology, said in a statement at the time.

Last month, Novartis Oncology saw its president Hervé Hoppenot, leave the company to become president and CEO of Incyte—which yesterday disclosed the unit’s annual sales of $11 billion, 19% of Novartis’ roughly $56.7 billion in 2012 annual sales, and workforce of 8,000 employees in 50 countries. Hoppenot is being succeeded on an interim basis by Dr. Riva.

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