Akebia, Keryx to merge, creating kidney disease specialist ahead of showdown with FibroGen, GlaxoSmithKline

Akebia CEO John Butler. (Akebia)

Akebia Therapeutics is set to merge with Keryx Biopharmaceuticals. The combined company will own potentially complementary kidney disease drugs and a sales force to promote them, setting it up to fend off competition from rivals including FibroGen and GlaxoSmithKline.

Massachusetts-based Akebia has spent the past few years advancing its oral hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) stabilizer vadadustat through clinical development as a treatment for patients with anemia due to chronic kidney disease (CKD). In parallel, Keryx has won approval for phosphate binder Auryxia in the treatment of iron deficiency anemia in patients with CKD.

With the drugs targeting similar patient populations, Akebia and Keryx have decided to join forces. The all-stock merger will give Keryx stockholders around one Akebia share for every three they own today. That will result in Akebia shareholders owning a bit more than half of the combined firm.

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The combined company, which will take Akebia’s name, will have the two aforementioned drugs and the sales team built up by Keryx to promote Auryxia. If vadadustat wins approval, Akebia will have a readymade, CKD-focused sales team to push the product and a chance to sell two drugs everytime it interacts with a nephrologist.

That extra commercial heft could help Akebia as it heads into a commercial scrap with one or two larger organizations. FibroGen, which has a market cap 10 times the size of Akebia’s, is closing in on a filing for FDA approval of its rival HIF drug, roxadustat. And GlaxoSmithKline is running a phase 3 program to support the approval of daprodustat, its challenger for the market.

Responsibility for equipping the combined company to compete will fall on Akebia CEO John Butler, who will retain his title after the merger. Butler thinks Akebia will emerge from the merger in a stronger position.

“Combining Akebia and Keryx creates a leading renal company and provides it with the infrastructure to maximize the market potential of Auryxia and build launch momentum for vadadustat in the United States, subject to FDA approval,” Butler said in a statement.

Shares in Akebia rose 12% in premarket trading. Keryx was up 1% at the same point in time.

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