Astellas pledges $102.5M for universal donor cell company

Astellas is building its cell therapy capabilities through acquisitions. (Image: Astellas)

Astellas has bought out a U.S. biotech that promises to do away with the testing needed to ensure cell therapy products aren’t rejected by a patient’s immune system.

The Japanese pharma company is paying $102.5 million for Universal Cells, claiming ownership of the Seattle-based biotech just a few months after it signed a $9 million upfront licensing deal to apply its off-the-shelf cell technology to a single, undisclosed disease indication. The total value of the deal depends on certain clinical milestones.

Universal is developing a platform technology that uses recombinant adeno-associated viral (AAV) vectors to edit the genomes of pluripotent stem cells by switching off human leukocyte antigen (HLA) expression in a way that does not cause ‘off-target’ DNA cutting—which could lead to unintended effects. The resulting universal donor cells don’t require donor matching or immune-suppressing therapy and don’t stimulate rejection, according to the biotech.

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“The acquisition combines Astellas' capability of establishing differentiated functional cells from pluripotent stem cells with Universal Cell's ability to produce pluripotent stem cells that have lower immunological rejection,” said the Japanese drugmaker in a statement. Universal Cells has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Astellas following the close of the acquisition.

Astellas has been building a stake in the emerging cell therapy market of late, cutting a deal to develop cell-based cancer immunotherapies with Bellicum in 2015 and paying $379 million to buy stem cell company Ocata Therapeutics the following year. The latter deal prompted the formation of the Astellas Institute for Regenerative Medicine (AIRM) in May 2016.

By buying Universal Cells Astellas also inherits its existing collaboration with Adaptimmune for off-the-shelf T cell cancer immunotherapies, signed in 2015, and a 2016 alliance with Healios to create cell therapies for age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

The push into cell therapies is just part of an M&D drive for the Japanese company, which has also added to its stable with deals for Mitobridge and its Duchenne muscular dystrophy candidate and G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) specialist Ogeda Pharma in the last few months.