Penningtons Manches’ life sciences team has acted for Orca Pharmaceuticals, an Oxford-based biopharmaceutical company, on its three year collaboration with AstraZeneca to develop inhibitors of retinoic acid–related orphan nuclear receptor gamma (RORg). 

Orca is working to develop small molecule anti-inflammatory drugs to treat patients with severe autoimmune disease. The company’s technology is focused on RORg nuclear hormone receptor targets and its lead therapeutic programme is in psoriasis. RORg plays a key role in the immune system. Specifically, it helps to convert a population of immune cells called CD4+ T cells into T-helper 17 (TH17) cells which, in turn, produce chemicals (cytokines) that drive the immune response. These cells and cytokines are essential players in autoimmune disease and excessive activity of TH17 cells and other RORg+ immune cells has been implicated in a wide range of conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Under the terms of the agreement, AstraZeneca will gain access to RORg inhibitors developed by Orca Pharmaceuticals and will integrate these into its in-house programme. Scientists from AstraZeneca and Orca Pharmaceuticals will work closely together to progress the programme and AstraZeneca has the option to acquire the Orca compounds at the end of the collaboration. 

Penningtons Manches partner, Kerry Sharp, a partner in the firm’s multi award-winning life sciences team, has acted for Orca since it was set up in 2013 and worked closely with Dr Mick Hunter, CEO and Dr Roy Pettipher, the Orca founders, on all aspects of the collaboration agreement. She was assisted by Patrick Baddeley, a partner in the corporate team. 

Commenting on Penningtons Manches’ involvement in the deal, Dr Hunter said: “Kerry’s experience of working with other biotech companies at the same stage of their development was invaluable to us. Kerry has extensive experience of large pharma/biotech deal making and has concluded some of the most significant deals in the Oxford biotech scene in the past few years. Her understanding of how to balance the requirements of both parties with the uncertainties inherent in developing new therapies against an ever-changing marketplace was absolutely critical to achieving a successful collaboration between us and AstraZeneca.”