Astellas rejoins the autoimmune antibody craze with Pandion partnership
Over a year ago, Astellas CEO Kenji Yasukawa announced a large R&D restructure: 600 cut jobs, multiple research subsidiaries shut down, and a rejiggered early pipeline approach centered on so-called “focus areas.” Each focus area was detailed briefly in a report they released, along with how they’d reach the therapy.
But one sub-focus area looked different. Rather than list the features of their technology, the space below auto-antibodies (a form of autoimmune disorder) said simply “development of new platform.”
Astellas appears to have found that new platform, or at least part of it. They’ve announced a deal worth potentially $795 million for pancreatic autoimmune therapies with Pandion Therapeutics, a biotech that launched last year with significant funding and pedigreed founders. The deal will pay Pandion up to $45 million at first, between an unspecified upfront fee and milestones for identifying and designing molecules. They will then stand to earn up to $750 million in near term milestones from Astellas’ preclinical and clinical work.
The first target is type 1 diabetes, a disease long managed with insulin injections but whose root causes have largely yet to be addressed.
“The missing piece is that insulin doesn’t slow or stop the actual disease progression itself,” Pandion CEO Rahul Kakkar told Endpoints News. “So the missing piece here is to go upstream, earlier in the disease process, before the pancreas has been so destroyed to the point our bodies no longer produce insulin… to actually try to preserve the pancreas itself.”
This is not Astellas first $700 million-plus foray into autoimmune diseases in general or type 1 diabetes in particular. In 2015, they joined with Anokion to found Kanyos Bio, a startup focused on T1 diabetes and celiac disease, promising to invest up to $760 million. By the time Anokion fully acquired Kanyos in September, Astellas had quietly pulled out of the venture.
Originally pioneered in cancer immunotherapy, bispecific antibodies have emerged as one of the hottest spaces for autoimmune research. The technology works in a similar way to the antibody-based mechanism tumor cells use to trick the body into thinking they are healthy cells. Instead of labeling tumor cells healthy, though, you relabel healthy cells the body has mistakenly deemed foreign.
“The idea of retraining — and the scientific term for that is ‘inducing tolerance’ or ‘self-tolerance’ — has been an idea within the autoimmune and scientific space,” Kakkar said, “but I think what is different now is that science has caught up with the vision.”
Pandion launched in January 2018 with $58 million from a Polaris-led Series A funding led and former Pfizer executive Anthony Coyle at the helm. They’ve spent the year-plus since amassing a library of antibodies for specific tissues, Kakkar said.
“We have been working to expand the arrows in our quiver,” he said.
PT-101, their lead candidate, will head into the clinic for inflammatory bowel disease next year, around two years after the company’s launch.