Astellas inks a back-loaded $515M deal to get its hands on a pain drug

Japanese drugmaker Astellas is expanding its pipeline of analgesics, signing a deal worth up to $515 million for the rights to a new treatment for nerve pain.

Under a deal with U.S. biotech Chromocell, Astellas is in-licensing a neuropathic pain drug for $15 million up front and the promise of up to $500 million more tied to development and commercial milestones. In exchange, the company gets the worldwide rights to CC8464, a Chromocell-discovered treatment that targets the NaV1.7 ion channel, which is expressed by the neurons responsible for signaling pain.

Chromocell expects to file the paperwork needed to start a clinical trial early next year, and the agreement tasks the New Jersey company with handling CC8464's development through the first Phase IIa proof-of-concept study. From there, Astellas will take up the mantle in neuropathic pain. Chromocell retains the right to launch studies in other indications where a NaV1.7 blockade might do some good, and the deal allows Astellas to opt in any such projects in exchange for additional cash.

Astellas already has a pair of neuropathic pain treatments in its pipeline--the Phase II ASP8477 and Phase I ASP9226--but bringing in Chromocell's treatment gives a new, promising mechanism of action to explore, the company said.

And Astellas is hardly the only outfit at work in NaV1.7. Earlier this month, analgesic giant Purdue Pharma unveiled a plan to launch a joint venture devoted to developing some early-stage candidates for the same target. And, in July, Pfizer ($PFE) spun out its NaV1.7 program, helping form a company called Icagen.

Meanwhile, Astellas has increasingly looked to external collaborators to jump-start its pipeline. After cutting deep into its U.S. research operation in 2013, the company has restructured its approach to innovation and kept up a steady pace of partnering to bring in new projects. Over the past year alone, Astellas signed a $760 million deal to launch an immuno-oncology joint venture, deepened its ties with Cytokinetics ($CYTK) in rare diseases, paired up with Harvard University in gene therapy and inked a cancer agreement with Proteostasis Therapeutics worth up to $1.2 billion.

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