February 28, 2018 / 8:48 AM / 20 days ago

AstraZeneca spins off autoimmune drugs into new biotech company

LONDON (Reuters) - AstraZeneca is spinning off six early-stage experimental drugs into a new $250 million standalone biotech company focused on severe autoimmune diseases.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of AstraZeneca is seen on medication packages in a pharmacy in London April 28, 2014. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/File Photo

The spin-off of the three clinical and three pre-clinical biological compounds, announced on Wednesday, is the latest example of the British drugmaker pruning its non-core drug development work to focus on priority areas, notably in cancer.

Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said earlier this month that AstraZeneca had a drug pipeline that was “over-sized relative to the current size of our company”.

It has already divested a number of medicines in recent years. In 2017, so-called externalisation deals, involving asset sales and partnerships, contributed $2.3 billion out of total revenue of $22.5 billion, prompting criticism from some analysts who argue such transactions unduly flatter results.

In the case of the new inflammation and autoimmunity company, called Viela Bio, AstraZeneca will retain a significant interest as the new company’s largest minority shareholder.

Viela Bio’s potential new medicines include inebilizumab for neuromyelitis optica, a rare disease affecting the optic nerve and spinal cord of around five in 100,000 people. The drug has orphan drug status and could be filed for approval in late 2019 or early 2020.

However, the deal does not include anifrolumab, a promising treatment in final-stage clinical testing that AstraZeneca is developing for lupus, an chronic autoimmune disease with limited treatment options.

Bahija Jallal, head of AstraZeneca’s MedImmune biotech unit, said the drugmaker would remain strongly active in immunology. “Our strategy is very much to follow the science. In some cases, we will develop the science in-house and in other cases it will be developed elsewhere,” she said in a phone interview.

Viela Bio will be based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and will be funded with $250 million from a consortium of investors led by Boyu Capital, 6 Dimensions Capital and Hillhouse Capital.

The new company’s chief executive is Bing Yao, currently head of respiratory, inflammation and autoimmunity at AstraZeneca’s MedImmune innovative medicines unit. Several other MedImmune staff will also move across to the new business, including Jorn Drappa, who will head up research.

It is not the first time AstraZeneca has shifted assets into a new biotech company in this way. In 2015, it spun out its early small-molecule anti-infective drugs into Entasis Therapeutics and in 2008 it shifted gastrointestinal research into a company called Albireo.

Reporting by Ben Hirschler, editing by Larry King

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