Astellas wagers $760M to launch an autoimmune biotech in Cambridge, MA

Astellas Chief Strategy Officer Kenji Yasukawa

Japanese drugmaker Astellas is teaming up with a Swiss biotech to launch a joint venture focused on autoimmune disease, promising up to $760 million with an option to buy the new company outright.

Dubbed Kanyos Bio, the new company will use technology from Switzerland's Anokion to develop treatments designed to break down the immune system's response to specific antigens. Anokion's method involves introducing target antigens to red blood cells in vivo, allowing the cells to circulate in the body and letting the immune system process the irritants, eventually forcing acceptance and preventing an autoimmune response. The idea is to create a platform that can reverse-engineer treatments for any unwanted immune response, and the approach has shown promise in animal models, according to Anokion.

Taking that technology, Kanyos will get started on preclinical projects in Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, the company said, and Astellas has the option of adding a third indication to the docket. The biotech will settle in in Cambridge, MA, home to a slew of biotech innovators, top-tier research institutions and, increasingly, Astellas collaborators.

To get it started, Astellas is participating in a $16 million funding round for Kanyos alongside some of Anokion's investors, a group that includes Versant Ventures, Novo ($NVO) Ventures and Novartis ($NVS) Venture Fund. And Astellas' potential $760 million commitment includes funds for R&D, milestone payments and the final price tag on Kanyos if the pharma giant chooses to acquire it.

The move comes as 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 has deepened its ties with Cytokinetics ($CYTK) in rare diseases, paired up with Harvard University in gene therapy, inked an oncology deal with Proteostasis Therapeutics worth up to $1.2 billion and leapt into the hot field of immuno-oncology with Cambridge, MA's Potenza Therapeutics.

And the build-to-buy Kanyos deal fits right in with that externalized R&D ethos, which Astellas calls its its Innovation Management program.

"This collaboration is the newest piece of Astellas' strategy in immunology," Chief Strategy Officer Kenji Yasukawa said in a statement. "... In addition to the above mentioned initial targets, it is considered that the technology can be applied to other autoimmune diseases. In this sense, there is meaningful potential for future growth."

- read the statement