A 'love story': WuXi AppTec wraps UK-based CRO into its cell and gene therapy unit
When WuXi AppTec, one of China’s largest contract research organizations, started working with UK-based Oxgene about a year ago, it was “love at first sight,” CEO David Chang jokes.
Oxgene, a roughly decade-old CRO focused on scalable gene therapy tech, began licensing some of their plasmid work to WuXi just over a year ago. And when that pilot went well, WuXi expressed interest in investing, Oxgene CEO Ryan Cawood said.
“As conversations progressed and we realized there were very strong synergies between the two companies, we just realized that this just made sense,” Cawood said.
On Tuesday morning, the companies took the wraps off a $135 million acquisition deal. Oxgene will keep its name, but become a subsidiary in WuXi’s cell and gene therapy-centered Advanced Therapies Unit (ATU).
“I call that the last piece of the puzzle,” Chang said.
China’s cost advantage and position as the world’s second-largest prescription drug market has fueled its red-hot CRO industry over the last few years. WuXi AppTec’s ATU unit, which became a legal entity just last year, prides itself as a “one turnkey solution,” Chang said — a one-stop-shop for cell and gene therapy testing, manufacturing and development.
The missing puzzle piece, though, was next-gen gene therapy manufacturing tech. When WuXi began licensing Oxgene’s AAV and lentiviral plasma technology, they already had some tech in-licensed from others. But the performance was “just mediocre,” Chang said.
“The outcome … is an order of magnitude better than whatever we had seen in the market a year ago,” he said of Oxgene’s products.
Oxgene will also be christened as WuXi ATU’s first European facility, thus expanding their global presence. The ATU headquarters are in Philadelphia, and the unit also boasts a Chinese facility.
In terms of making gene therapies, Oxgene is looking to shake up the current industry standard, which is plasmid transfection — the mechanism of adding a DNA plasmid to a cell.
“If you’re using transfection as your process you are inherently limited in terms of scalability, and in terms of the cost of goods they’re always going to be very very high,” Cawood said. “So we basically want to throw transfection out the window, eventually over the next couple of years, and replace it with new and improved technologies.”
On the lentiviral side, the CRO is creating “stable cell lines,” where all the components you would normally have in a plasmid are integrated into a cell line, thus removing the need for plasmids, Cawood explained. On the AAV side, they’ve essentially repurposed adenovirus to deliver the genetic components of AAV into a cell — a technology they call TESSA.
“That platform allows you to infect at very high cell densities, it allows you to produce very large quantities of AAV, and a completely transfection-free process,” Cawood said.
The Oxgene team is also working on a “series of other technologies” behind the scenes, and plans on filing three new patents in the next two weeks.
Oxgene is getting a single cash transaction of $135 million, plus the chance to ramp up manufacturing capabilities, which is something they were already looking to do, Cawood said.
“I truly believe that we’re transforming the future, the viral vector production, and we all know by now it’s currently a bottleneck for the gene therapy industry,” Chang said.