Astellas dives into immuno-oncology with a sweeping biotech deal

Japanese pharma giant Astellas is entering the booming field of immuno-oncology, pairing up with Cambridge, MA's Potenza Therapeutics to work on a wide variety of treatments that use the body's natural defenses to combat cancer.

Under the agreement, Potenza will take the lead on drug discovery with a broad approach to immunotherapy, spotlighting candidates could unblind the immune system to the spread of tumors. Astellas will handle all clinical development thereafter, handing over an undisclosed upfront payment and making an equity investment in the biotech. The drugmaker is also promising future milestone cash tied to ongoing development, and it has picked up the rights to acquire its partner down the road.

Astellas, which markets the blockbuster cancer treatment Xtandi, is edging its way into a fast-moving field that promises to change the standard of care for a host of cancers. Companies including Merck ($MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Roche ($RHHBY) have already charted major success with antibodies targeting PD-1, PD-L1, CTLA-4 and other targets, but Astellas believes immuno-oncology's best days are yet ahead.

Now, with Potenza in tow, the company hopes it can play a lead role in the second wave of immunotherapies for cancer, looking for novel mechanisms of action to improve upon what's already in place.

Potenza CEO Daniel Hicklin

"We are at the beginning of a new era in cancer therapy," Potenza CEO Daniel Hicklin said in a statement. "First-generation immuno-oncology therapeutics have demonstrated meaningful clinical benefit to patients with certain cancers. The new targets and pathways that Potenza is working on offer promise for continued expansion of immunotherapy treatment options."

Astellas played a part in the $38 million A round Potenza closed late last year, joining founding investor MPM Capital and InterWest Partners. Established last year, the biotech has disclosed very little about its proprietary technology, saying only that it is focused on disrupting the mechanisms cancer cells use to evade detection. Potenza's management team includes veterans of Merck's oncology division, Millennium Pharmaceuticals and the Novartis ($NVS)-acquired CoStim Pharmaceuticals.

- read the statement