Covant Therapeutics, Roivant’s latest spin-off company, will have a major partner with whom to explore the benefits of covalency, courtesy of an exclusive research pact and licensing deal with Boehringer Ingelheim.

The Roivant subsidiary company focuses on covalent drug discovery. As per their accord announced Tuesday, the companies will jointly develop a small-molecule immunotherapy that targets the protein ADAR1 for use in treating patients with cancer. 

Under the terms of the agreement, Covant will be responsible for the discovery of ADAR1 small-molecule inhibitors. In turn, it will receive an upfront payment of $10 million from BI and will be eligible for up to $471 million in additional milestone payments along with tiered royalties on global sales.

“ADAR1 is an exciting immuno-oncology target with significant therapeutic potential,” stated Lamine Mbow, BI’s global head of cancer immunology and immune modulation. Through partnering with Covant, he added, “We aim to bring next-generation immunotherapies to cancer patients.”

ADAR1 is a “key, hard-to-drug immuno-oncology target,” noted Dr. Ivan Cornella, Covant’s chief scientific officer. 

“Boehringer Ingelheim has a leading oncology and immuno-oncology pipeline and their decision to work with Covant is a testament to the strength of our team and approach,” he said in a statement.

Existing immunotherapies typically only work in a minority of patients. An ADAR inhibitor could address that challenge by transforming “cold” tumors into “hot” ones — i.e., those which have more immune cells present in the tumor microenvironment. As such, the Covant-BI drug could be used in combination with other immunotherapies to increase their efficacy. 

Covant, which was incubated by Roivant, formed its scientific advisory board earlier this month. All of Roivant’s subsidiary companies are called “vants.” 

Notable examples of covalent drug discovery include AbbVie’s BTK inhibitor Imbruvica (ibrutinib) and AstraZeneca’s epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitor Tagrisso (osimertinib), with 2020 sales totaling $8.4 billion and $4.3 billion, respectively. 

Covalent modification has also enabled targeting of proteins previously thought to be “undruggable,” such as covalent KRAS (G12C), which evaded drug discovery for decades before the 2021 approval of Amgen’s Lumakras (sotorasib) for lung cancer. More traditional covalent targeting of proteins includes Pfizer’s COVID antiviral Paxlovid (nirmatrelvir), which inhibits the SARS-CoV-2 main protease.