Harvard pens Astellas research deal, vowing to push on despite pandemic

Harvard Medical School
Harvard Medical School (timsackton/CC BY-SA 2.0)

With COVID-19 still sweeping across the U.S. and daily cases and deaths making for grim reading, biomedical R&D deals are not an easy sell.

But researchers at Harvard University and Japanese pharma Astellas are not letting a major pandemic and lockdown get in the way of science: The pair have announced a new research tie-up focused on “multiple, multi-year research projects initiated by faculty at Harvard, focused on the research and development of innovative therapeutics and technologies of mutual interest.”

Specifics at this stage have not been shared, nor have any financial considerations, but much of the work appears to be focused on earlier-stage efforts, though the three-year pact will also seek out possible drug targets or "the generation and validation of new therapeutic entities,” according to a joint statement.

As part of the pact, Astellas said it will be sending out “challenges” based on its research scopes to “inspire” research proposals by Harvard faculty. Then, some of these will be picked up by the pharma for project funding.

Given the ongoing pandemic, this deal will not be able to work in a normal way for now, but the pair said their collab will provide “crucial support” to future research team efforts “when the academic laboratories return to regular activities following the significant disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic.”

They added that they “are determined to initiate this alliance effort to explore new collaborative research opportunities even in these challenging times.”

Akihiko Iwai, Ph.D., president of drug discovery research at Astellas, said: “Astellas has a long-standing commitment to the Boston-area life sciences ecosystem, with a rich source of world-class institutions and talent dedicated to turning innovative science into value for patients.

“Through this research alliance, we aim to incorporate the latest scientific innovation into our R&D pipeline to accelerate our drug discovery efforts from early-stage through to clinical stage in areas that match with our strategic focus. ”

It’s not the first time the two have come together for research: Back in 2014, Astellas and Harvard inked a gene therapy deal focused on treating retinitis pigmentosa patients to help improve their vision. 

This comes after a string of multibillion-dollar deals for Astellas over the past year, including its buyout of Parker Institute-backed biotech Xyphos, which came just a few weeks after Astellas put $3 billion down for Audentes, furthering its gene therapy pipeline.

A month ago, it also penned a $1.6 billion biobucks pact with CytomX Therapeutics, with the plan being to unlock the potential of T-cell engaging bispecifics in the treatment of solid tumors.