AstraZeneca spinout bags $250M, pipeline headed by late-phase autoimmune drug

AstraZeneca has carved off six inflammation and autoimmune assets to create a new biotech, Viela Bio. The startup put together a $250 million series A round and a management team from its parent company to guide the mix of clinical and preclinical programs forward.

Viela begins life with three clinical programs, including phase 2/3 CD19 antibody inebilizumab, and the same number of preclinical assets. Funding to advance the drugs has come primarily from three Chinese investment groups—Boyu Capital, 6 Dimensions Capital and Hillhouse Capital—which led the round with the support of Singaporean state wealth fund Temasek and Sirona Capital.

The composition of the syndicate is indicative of how the triple-digit rounds are funded in 2018. But the underlying motivation for the creation of the startup is more timeless. Viela, like others before it, is a product of a Big Pharma having promising assets on the periphery of its pipeline.

In the case of Viela, the specific motivation for its creation comes from AstraZeneca’s desire to focus its attention on oncology, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. That strategy leaves inflammation and autoimmune assets among those playing second fiddle. And, as in the CNS division, it has driven AstraZeneca to seek outside support to fund the drugs without totally severing its ties to the assets. 

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Viela’s most advanced asset is inebilizumab, a monoclonal antibody formerly known as MEDI-551. AstraZeneca assessed the drug in conditions including multiple sclerosis and multiple myeloma. But it advanced the asset furthest in neuromyelitis optica and neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorders. A phase 2/3 trial in the autoimmune disorder is due to readout next year. Viela hopes inebilizumab will delay the time to onset of attacks by depleting the plasma cells that drive the disease.

Responsibility for taking inebilizumab and the five other programs forward will fall on many of the same people who oversaw the assets at AstraZeneca. Bing Yao, Ph.D., formerly a SVP at AstraZeneca, is taking up the Viela CEO post. Yao is taking a clutch of AstraZeneca colleagues with him. Jorn Drappa, M.D., Ph.D., is filling the Viela CMO position. Aaron Ren, Ph.D., is heading up operations.

The trio and others to make the jump from AstraZeneca will occupy space leased from their former employer in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the Washington Business Journal reports. That is one of several ways Viela will remain close to AstraZeneca. The Big Pharma is the largest shareholder in Viela and is partnered with the biotech on a preclinical program. Viela is also doing development work on two drugs covered by a deal between AstraZeneca and Amgen.