Single-asset Equillium buys Bioniz for up to $329M, adding 3 drugs to its pipeline

Equillium, with only one asset in its pipeline thanks to an in-licensing deal, is expanding its drug development efforts via the acquisition of Bioniz Therapeutics. The deal, worth up to approximately $329 million, gives the California biotech access to three therapeutics and more assets in discovery.

Equillium will buy Bioniz for about $21.4 million in stock and up to $57.5 million in development biobucks. The deal is further backloaded by up to $250 million in commercial milestone payments, the company said Wednesday. 

"Given today’s market conditions, we felt the time was right to be strategically opportunistic and we are pleased to add these exciting assets to our pipeline," Bruce Steel, CEO of Equillium, said in a statement.

Bioniz's cytokine inhibitor BNZ-1 completed a phase 1/2 study in cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, or CTCL, meeting its primary objective of safety and tolerability. The drug is being considered for a phase 2/3 trial in CTCL and a midstage study in alopecia areata, or balding. Bioniz has open applications with the FDA to run those studies, the company said. 

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The acquisition also gives Equillium access to BNZ-2, an inhibitor of IL-15 and IL-21, that is ready for a phase 1 trial in patients with celiac disease, which entails a hypersensitivity to gluten. Further yet, Bioniz has BNZ-3, another IL-15 and IL-21 inhibitor that is in preclinical development for potential use in treating gastrointestinal inflammation. 

Beyond those three assets, Bioniz has a discovery platform based on the patented technology from the National Institutes of Health lab of Thomas Waldmann. Takeda Ventures and former Allergan CEO David Pyott backed the startup in a $13 million series A in 2016. 

This is not the first time a company has tried to consume Bioniz. The company previously entered an acquisition option agreement with Barcelona, Spain, pharma Almirall in January 2020. Almirall decided to not buy the company in the first half of 2021. 

For Equillium, the deal adds multiple drugs to a pipeline that until now had included only one asset in itolizumab. The monoclonal antibody isn't even an in-house drug. Equillium first in-licensed the U.S. and Canadian rights to itolizumab from Indian pharma Biocon in 2017 and followed up for the Australian and New Zealand rights in 2019.

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India's regulator approved itolizumab for moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis in 2013 under the brand Alzumab. The country also approved the drug, under emergency use, during the COVID-19 pandemic to treat cytokine release syndrome in patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome.

For its part, Equillium is testing itolizumab in acute graft-versus-host disease and lupus nephritis. Just last month, the company decided to stop testing the drug in patients with uncontrolled asthma despite passing safety and tolerability in a phase 1b trial. 

"As a result of the ongoing pandemic and associated challenges conducting asthma trials, we will be prioritizing our clinical development efforts on our pivotal study in acute graft-versus-host disease and our ongoing lupus nephritis program," Chief Medical Officer Dolca Thomas, M.D., said in a statement at the time.