Blockbuster hopes grow for Ablynx drug backed by AbbVie

(Reuters) - Ablynx’s hopes for a potential multibillion-dollar drug were boosted on Thursday by strong clinical trial results in rheumatoid arthritis, vindicating a $175 million bet placed on the product by U.S. pharma group AbbVie in 2013.

Belgian drugmaker Ablynx, which produces so-called nanobody medicines derived from camel and llama antibodies, said that a 12-week Phase IIb trial showed that its experimental drug vobarilizumab produced clinical remission from disease in up to 41 percent of patients.

Those results compared well with Roche’s established product Actemra, which has to be given more frequently and has more side-effects.

Shares in Ablynx jumped 15.1 percent to 13.27 euros by 0448 ET.

“We’re getting really stand-out data, which is great, and it is the first step for us in providing a data package to AbbVie, who will decide later in the year whether to take up their option and license the product,” Ablynx CEO Edwin Moses told Reuters.

Both the Roche and Ablynx drugs target a protein called interleukin 6, which is involved in the inflammation underlying rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Actemra had sales last year of $1.5 billion and Moses said that vobarilizumab also has blockbuster potential, assuming other clinical trials are positive.

“If you look at the size of the opportunity, not just in RA but also in lupus and other possible inflammatory indications, you have to begin to think in the billions (of dollars) in terms of the sales opportunity,” Moses said.

AbbVie currently sells the RA treatment Humira, which is the world’s top-selling prescription drug, but it is looking for new medicines to expand its portfolio to counter the impact of cut-price competition from biosimilar copies of Humira in the coming years.

Ablynx’s product could help to underpin the U.S. company’s market-leading position in RA, though analysts at Jefferies said it is not yet clear if AbbVie viewed vobarilizumab as a must-have product.

AbbVie signed a partnership deal worth up to $840 million for the Ablynx medicine three years ago, including a $175 million upfront payment. The remaining $665 million is payable in future milestones if AbbVie opts to license the drug and it proves successful.

Ablynx will also be eligible to receive royalties on sales, assuming the drug makes it to market.

Moses said that he expects AbbVie to decide whether to license vobarilizumab -- triggering a $75 million payment -- after it sees results from a second RA trial slated for August.

Editing by David Goodman