Astellas offers $379M buyout for a pioneering stem cell survivor

Astellas Pharma has stepped up with a $379 million bid for Ocata Therapeutics, a pioneering--and often controversial--stem cell company that has managed to survive a years-long roller coaster ride through the hype, hope and disappointments of the past decade. 

Astellas has agreed to offer investors $8.50 a share for Ocata, which FierceBiotech readers may remember better as Advanced Cell Technology. Several years ago ACT was known for trumpeting every new bit of data as a major advance in the field. But clinical progress was slow for ACT as well as its rivals, and the biotech's shares sank into penny stock territory, leading to a reorganization with staff cuts. 

Last fall the Marlborough, MA-based company changed its name to Ocata, highlighting its work on macular degeneration and Stargardt disease. And the company is still in the early stages of clinical trial work as Ocata engineers regenerative cells out of embryonic stem cells, a practice which once stirred great controversy.

That controversy inspired the George W. Bush administration to limit the cell lines available for research use, which in turn prompted the state of California to come up with a major translational effort aimed at advancing new stem cell treatments into the clinic. But that West Coast effort has flagged as well as the time, money and effort needed to support a new field has gradually taken its toll among supporters.

Astellas CEO Yoshihiko Hatanaka

Astellas will now vault into the top rank as it looks to beef up its ophthalmology work. But it won't be alone. Boston-based startup Vision Medicines, for example, just landed $7.5 million in funding from Foundation Fighting Blindness in their drive to clinical proof of concept data. 

Astellas' bid comes with a 79% premium for investors over Friday's close.

Astellas still has a ways to go before it completes the buyout. The executive team and directors have committed their shares to the deal, but they only account for 1.7% of the total.

"We highly value Ocata's R&D capabilities, including its world-leading researchers in cell therapy," said Astellas CEO Yoshihiko Hatanaka in a statement. "We're confident that we will turn innovative science into value for patients through the creation of new value by combining both companies' capabilities under 'One Astellas,' where Ocata will be taking a key role in Astellas' R&D in ophthalmology and cell therapy."

- here's the release

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