AstraZeneca extends global shopping spree with $232M asthma drug deal

AstraZeneca's ($AZN) executive crew isn't done doing biotech deals. The pharma giant extended one of the biggest shopping sprees in the industry with a pact, in-licensing rights to a drug from Synairgen that targets the viral infections that afflict the respiratory tracts of asthma patients. And the little biotech's shares soared on the news.

In this new deal the U.K. biotech Synairgen gets a modest upfront--$7.25 million--with about $225 million pledged toward development, regulatory and commercial milestones of its lead therapy. AstraZeneca gets the rights to SNG001, an inhaled interferon beta therapy, with plans to start a Phase IIa study in early 2015 to test its effectiveness in preventing infections among patients with severe asthma. Then it plans to start widening the scope of the program to include COPD and other pulmonary indications.

Synairgen signalled its interest in a deal way back in the fall of 2012, after nvestigators said that a 134-patient study demonstrated that SNG001 prevented symptoms of asthma during the first week of an infection. The study delivered a solid 65% reduction in the number of attacks when compared to the placebo arm.

Shaking off the hot pursuit of a buyout deal by Pfizer ($PFE), AstraZeneca maintained that it has built the pipeline it needs to provide for the future. But there is clearly still more room for these bolt-on development deals, which started in earnest a little more than two years ago, when then-R&D chief Martin Mackay--one of 2013's best-compensated R&D chiefs in biopharma--pledged to pull out all stops in engineering a comeback for a company that had earned a reputation for the weakest R&D operation in Big Pharma. The pace of deals increased when Pascal Soriot stepped in as CEO and named a troika of R&D execs to run the show--after Mackay was shown the door. Mackay later joined Alexion ($ALXN).

Pfizer's decision to walk away from its hoped-for merger with AstraZeneca hasn't prevented plenty of speculation that a buyout can still be arranged. Soriot and his team pledged rapid success in developing blockbusters that will create new standards of treatment in several key disease fields. And they made the unusual decision to attach peak sales estimates to their top prospects, making promises that they will be held to for years to come. Any new trouble on the R&D front will likely provoke a backlash among the big investors who were pushing for a deal.

The new Synairgen deal is a boon for the U.K. biotech sector, which has suffered in recent years after a slate of high-profile enterprises self-destructed. It's also another sign of the oversized role that AstraZeneca plays in the country's R&D scene, a big factor in its favor as it fought against Pfizer.

Maarten Kraan

"Respiratory disease is a core therapeutic area for AstraZeneca, and a key growth platform for the company," said Maarten Kraan, the head of Respiratory, Inflammation & Autoimmune Innovative Medicines at AstraZeneca. "Our approach includes addressing associated complications that patients experience, as well as developing treatments for the underlying disease. SNG001 is an innovative and targeted therapy that has, if successful, the potential to offer a step-change in the treatment of severe asthma, and possibly COPD."

- here's the release

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