AstraZeneca bets $122.5M on oral autoimmune drugs

AstraZeneca ($AZN) is out to get some more shots on goal in immunology, pairing up with a nascent biotech in hopes of developing oral medicines for psoriasis, arthritis and other diseases.

The drugmaker has signed a deal with the U.K.'s Orca Pharmaceuticals to collaborate on drugs that target the protein RORγ, which helps convert inactive immune cells into infection-fighting T cells. Such cells are integral to the immune system's function, but when overactive they can spur a wide range of autoimmune disorders, and AstraZeneca and Orca hope to develop small-molecule RORγ inhibitors that can tamp down their unwanted effects.

Under the deal, AstraZeneca has agreed to hand over up to $122.5 million over three years in exchange for the right to collaborate on Orca's stable of early-stage RORγ blockers, folding the candidates into its own ongoing program in the field. The two companies will collaborate on picking ideal medicines to take into preclinical development, and AstraZeneca will have the option to acquire the Orca compounds at the end of the deal.

The agreement is part of AstraZeneca's efforts to spread out in autoimmune disease, where its work is dwarfed by efforts in oncology and metabolic disease. The company's only late-stage autoimmune asset is the Amgen ($AMGN)-partnered brodalumab, up for an FDA filing this year, and its Phase II assets are limited to a pair of antibodies for inflammatory bowel disease and the arthritis injection mavrilimumab.

The Orca assets, while far from clinical trials, give the company a chance to innovate in the field instead of playing catch-up, AstraZeneca said. The current standard of care for ailments like arthritis and psoriasis relies on injected TNF blockers like Humira and Enbrel, creating a huge unmet need for tablets that can do the same job, said Maarten Kraan, head of AstraZeneca's autoimmune research.

"We are delighted to be partnering with Orca Pharmaceuticals in this hot area of immunology science to help us create potentially best-in-class chemical assets and candidate drugs for patients who currently do not have any oral medicines available to treat their chronic conditions," Kraan said in a statement.

Orca, headquartered in Abingdon, started up in 2013 to run with a RORγ discovery made at New York University, hoping to establish proof of concept for a oral psoriasis drug by 2016. The company is funded by BioMotiv, a for-profit biotech accelerator with the goal of uniting academic researchers and professional drug development organizations, creating "bench-to-bedside clinical insights," CEO Baiju Shah has said.

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