London, United Kingdom — GlaxoSmithKline announced that it will acquire Waltham, Massachusetts-based drug company Tesaro, which develops novel cancer treatments, for $5.1 billion cash.

Perhaps Tesaro’s most noteworthy product is Zejula, an oral pill for treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer, distinguished in this space for being effective in women who don’t have a BRCA mutation. It’s a PARP inhibitor, a type of targeted therapy that prevents cells from repairing their own DNA. In cancerous cells, whose DNA-repair functionality may already be compromised, this can dramatically slow the progression of ovarian cancer. While the drug may in fact be more effective in women with a BRCA mutation, women who don’t have a BRCA mutation but do have damaged DNA-repair mechanisms will still react positively to the treatment. 

There are two other therapies currently being tested by Tesaro in which GSK also sees immense value. These experimental drugs harness the body’s own immune system to battle cancers. According to Hal Barron, GSK’s Head of R&D, this is a therapeutic area that is growing increasingly important to GSK. “We think this is the beginning of a new era in understanding how the immune system becomes dysfunctional, and how disease results from that,” he says

“The acquisition of TESARO will strengthen our pharmaceuticals business by accelerating the build of our oncology pipeline and commercial footprint, along with providing access to new scientific capabilities,” said GSK CEO Emma Walmsley. “This combination will support our aim to deliver long-term sustainable growth and is consistent with our capital allocation priorities.” 

There will be significant marketing and sales hurdles to surmount after the acquisition. According to GSK, Tesaro’s sales force will not work under the British company’s current incentives.  

Why This Matters

GSK’s belief in Tesaro’s drugs reflects the broad promise—beyond cancer, even—of therapies that mobilize the human immune system. “Cardiovascular disease may have an immune component,” says Barron. “Metabolic disease could have an immune component. Aging could have an immune component. If we could focus on that further, I think we could find a lot of interesting targets that might have a really big impact on patients.”

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.