Novartis, once wary of Chinese M&A, dives into BeiGene's cancer immunotherapy

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People enter a building of biotechnology firm BeiGene Ltd at the Suzhou Industrial Park in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China November 22, 2019. Picture taken November 22, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Jan 12 (Reuters) - Swiss drugmaker Novartis (NOVN.S) paid $650 million to snag an immuno-oncology drug from BeiGene Ltd (6160.HK), the latest Western drugmaker turning to China for must-have assets to fill holes in their cancer portfolios.

Novartis Chief Executive Vas Narasimhan's move, which could bring $1.55 billion in milestone payments and royalties for BeiGene, is also an about-face from comments two years ago when he raised data quality and innovation worries as barriers to Big Pharma's Chinese M&A dreams.

Novartis will co-develop BeiGene's tislelizumab, an anti-PD-1 antibody similar to Keytruda from Merck (MRK.N) and Opdivo from Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY.N) which help the immune system attack cancer and which have reaped billions of dollars in sales.

Pfizer's (PFE.N) $200 million investment in China's CStone Pharmaceuticals in September, also targeting an immuno-oncology asset, is another such a deal.

Like Pfizer, Novartis has been tardy in developing cancer immunotherapy assets, with home-grown spartalizumab failing in a trial against skin cancer last year. That boosted urgency to scoop up BeiGene's asset that Novartis hopes to pair with other medicines.

Susanne Schaffert, Novartis's cancer area head, pledged to use tislelizumab "to develop transformative combination therapies for patients", she said.

BeiGene's drug has long been coveted by Western drugmakers: Celgene bought tislelizumab rights in 2017 for $263 million, but returned them when the U.S. company was bought by Bristol-Myers Squibb for $74 billion in 2019.


In May 2019, Novartis's Narasimhan struck a dour tone about Chinese M&A targets, telling investors "you don't see real fundamental new target discovery leading to novel drugs" and that "data quality needs to go up".

With gaps to fill, however, Narasimhan is now adding BeiGen's tislelizumab, also because the drug may have properties that could overcome problems that compromise other immuno-oncology drugs' anti-tumour activity.

Novartis will promote tislelizumab in North America, the European Union and Japan.

Tislelizumab is approved in China for lymphoma and bladder cancer.

Reporting by Derek Francis in Bengaluru; editing by Richard Pullin

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