After Audentes buy, acquisitive Astellas snaps up CAR-T biotech

Astellas US
Astellas' Xyphos buyout comes after the Japanese pharma spent $3 billion on a gene therapy biotech earlier this month. (Astellas)

Parker Institute-backed biotech Xyphos has been bought out by Japanese pharma Astellas as it looks to bolster its cancer pipeline.

The deal sees an $120 million upfront payment, with a total of $665 million on the table with backloaded biobucks.

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The early-stage biotech was born out of the breakup of AvidBiotics in 2017 and has engineered the NKG2D receptor to be inactive until it comes into contact with a bispecific.

By using the engineered receptor in CAR-T therapies, Xyphos may be able create cells that circulate harmlessly when first administered. Xyphos could then turn the CAR-T on by administering a bispecific that binds to its inactive NKG2D receptor and a tumor antigen.

In theory, the approach has several advantages over first-generation CAR-Ts. The use of bispecifics to activate CAR-T therapies and bring them into contact with tumor cells could reduce off-target effects and enable modulation of the intensity of the treatment. In contrast, if first-generation CAR-Ts start proliferating dangerously quickly, physicians have limited ability to pump the brakes on the treatment.

Last fall, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy teamed up with Xyphos to advance next-generation CAR-T therapies, specifically to improve on the blunt force of the initial CAR-Ts by creating more controllable therapies free from the safety issues and efficacy limitations of their predecessors.

RELATED: AvidBiotics split forms CAR-T and antibiotic specialists

Xyphos has been behind biotechs that are working on different fixes for the same problems, with other companies, such as Bellicum and Ziopharm, working on safety switches (although both companies have seen setbacks over the past 18 months), while Gilead acquired a synthetic biology startup to equip its CAR-Ts with control mechanisms.

“At Astellas, immuno-oncology is a Primary Focus of our research and development strategy, and we are working on the development of next-generation cancer immuno-therapy using new modalities/technologies,” said Kenji Yasukawa, president and CEO of Astellas.

“The innovative technology in development at Xyphos fits perfectly in advancing our immuno-oncology strategy to create and deliver value for patients. Combining this technology with our capabilities in cell therapy that we have been working on so far, we can create next-generation high-function cells and maximize the value of our technology.”

This comes just a few weeks after Astellas put $3 billion down for Audentes, furthering its gene therapy pipeline. With this latest deal, the Japanese pharma is placing bigger bets on the future of next-gen cell and gene therapies. Whilst clearly innovative, questions over profitability on some of these new treatments remains to be seen.

James Knighton, CEO at Xyphos, added: “Astellas' commitment to immuno-oncology makes them an ideal partner to advance our proprietary NKG2D-based NK-cell and T-cell platform to the next stage of clinical exploration. Further, we look forward to becoming part of Astellas to accelerate this immuno-oncology research and development in the vibrant South San Francisco community.”

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