Biogen says hello to HI-Bio, inking $1.15B buyout to expand in immunology

Biogen is placing a $1.15 billion bet on Chris Viehbacher’s diversification vision. The upfront payment has secured Biogen a deal to buy Human Immunology Biosciences (HI-Bio), a biotech that is preparing to advance an anti-CD38 monoclonal antibody into phase 3 in multiple rare immune-mediated indications.

Viehbacher identified Biogen’s focus on neuroscience as a problem after he took over as CEO of the Big Biotech. For a company of its size, Biogen was too narrowly focused, Viehbacher reckoned, and that was particularly troublesome because its pipeline skewed toward high-risk neuroscience programs. The CEO responded to the perceived problem by outlining plans to expand in other areas, notably immunology.

That plan took off Wednesday, when Biogen disclosed a deal to buy HI-Bio for $1.15 billion upfront and up to $650 million in potential milestone payments. The deal will give Biogen control of the anti-CD38 antibody felzartamab.

“We believe this late-stage asset, which has demonstrated impact on key biomarkers and clinical endpoints in three renal diseases with serious unmet needs, is a strategic addition to the Biogen portfolio as we continue to augment our pipeline and build on our expertise in immunology,” Priya Singhal, M.D., head of development at Biogen, said in a statement. 

HI-Bio identified the ability of felzartamab to selectively deplete CD38-positive cells as a way to treat a range of immune-mediated diseases. The biotech has phase 2 data in primary membranous nephropathy (PMN) and antibody-mediated rejection (AMR). A midstage study in IgA nephropathy (IgAN) is ongoing.

The biotech plans to run phase 3 trials in AMR, PMN and IgAN. The breadth of the program, coupled to the potential to target other immune-mediated diseases such as lupus, gives Biogen an opportunity to significantly expand its presence in immunology through a single pipeline-in-a-product, provided the molecule succeeds in the clinic.

Biogen plans to use its rare disease capabilities to develop and commercialize the antibody. The goal is to retain expertise and talent from San Francisco-based HI-Bio and establish a Bay Area team focused on immune-mediated diseases. In addition to felzartamab, Biogen is acquiring a phase 1 anti-C5aR1 antibody with applications in complement-mediated diseases as part of the takeover. 

Felzartamab has taken a circuitous route to this point. MorphoSys developed the antibody as a would-be rival to Johnson & Johnson and Genmab’s multiple myeloma drug Darzalex. Celgene struck a deal for the asset in 2013 only to walk away less than two years later. HI-Bio licensed the antibody outside of China in 2022.

MorphoSys took HI-Bio equity as part of the deal, ending last year with a 12% stake in the firm. Novartis, which struck a deal to buy MorphoSys, could be the beneficiary of the sale of the stake.