Drug Development

Allergan bags an early-stage gene therapy in $60M RetroSense buyout

While Allergan’s acquisitive CEO Brent Saunders was mapping out a new commitment to shun predatory pricing, he simultaneously threw in the latest in a series of bolt-on buyouts.

David Nicholson, Allergan

David Nicholson, Allergan

This time, Saunders has decided to pay $60 million up front to acquire a small gene therapy player based in Ann Arbor, MI. RetroSense Therapeutics has been attracting attention for its work using a gene therapy to restore light sensitivity to the retina in an attempt to restore the sight of people who have been blinded by retinitis pigmentosa.

RetroSense hasn’t been in the industry spotlight much, but its optogenetics technology did attract the attention of MIT Technology Review, which just tapped the biotech as one of the smartest companies of 2016. Allergan can now benefit from the rep.

Allergan is reaping a lead treatment dubbed RST-001, which started a Phase I/IIa clinical trial in the spring. The treatment implants a photosensitivity gene, channelrhodopsin-2, to create new photosensors in retinal ganglion cells. The add-on beefs up Allergan’s pipeline of eye drugs and RetroSense investors also get a slate of unspecified milestones for a successful program.

Allergan has a pipeline that balances a relatively low-risk cosmetic R&D approach with high-risk, high-reward efforts for depression and other CNS conditions. After its deal to merge with Pfizer fell through earlier in the year, Saunders immediately returned to his strategy of buying up new companies, largely sticking with late-stage efforts. The deal for RetroSense signals that Saunders also is increasingly willing to step in early on potentially game-changing programs.

Gene therapies have been experiencing something of a renaissance in recent years, with companies like Spark Therapeutics making some big gains in the clinic. Still, each company in the field has some big work to do proving just how durable their treatments will be and whether they stack up as real gains for patients. UniQure gained a pioneering approval in Europe, but its treatment has reportedly only been used once. Biotechs here will also have to come up with some way to price gene therapies, which may be offered as an unverified cure.

David Nicholson, the chief research and development officer at  Allergan, had this to say:

“The team at Allergan is excited by the prospect of advancing an entirely new approach in the treatment of retinal diseases, and this technology is highly complementary to our ongoing development programs in this critical treatment area.”

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