UK biotech founded by Nobel laureate rides the SPAC track out of the graveyard

Last we heard from U.K. cell therapy biotech Celixir in July 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had stymied an ongoing clinical trial of its cardio cell therapy and the hope was that recruitment could continue in the third quarter of 2020.

It’s been largely crickets since. Until now. Special purpose acquisition company Ashington Innovation has scooped up Celixir via reverse merger, coughing up 135 million pounds sterling ($172.2 million) in an all-share deal, according to a disclosure Thursday. Ashington will subsequently look to raise up to 3 million pounds ($3.8 million) more to finance additional drug development. 

The deal is nothing short of a complete resuscitation of Celixir. In March 2023, the company reported having roughly 285,000 pounds ($363,500) on hand, with more than 10 million pounds ($12.8 million) in liabilities. Financial statements from a year earlier were largely the same. 

All the while, there’s been chaotic shifts in the company’s leadership. The directorships of co-founders of Sir Martin Evans, a 2007 Nobel laureate for his work in embryonic stem cells, and Ajan Reginald were terminated in April 2021. The company then reappointed Reginald three months later. The two founded the company in 2009. 

Celixir's focus had been on an allogeneic cell therapy treatment for ischemic cardiomyopathy using what was dubbed immunomodulator progenitor cells. The biotech reported in July 2020 that it had successfully dosed the first patient in a clinical trial a few months earlier in March, almost to the day, when the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company planned to relaunch recruitment in the third quarter with the expectation that the trial would conclude in 2021, evidence of the world’s collective naivete of how long containment measures would last. 

That was the last public press release from the company, according to GlobeNewswire. The next most recent press release on Celixir’s site dates back to 2018. 

It’s not clear what drew Ashington to the company. The SPAC just began trading on the London Stock Exchange in June and describes itself as “formed for the purpose of acquiring a business or businesses operating in the technology sector, taking whole or part ownership.” Ashland’s chairman, Peter Presland, is a former insurance executive who’s served in a number of nonexecutive director positions since 2001. The company announced Wednesday that Executive Director Jason Drummond would be resigning due to other business commitments.