AstraZeneca $AZN has culled its pipeline of preclinical through mid-stage anti-inflammatory/autoimmune drugs at its big MedImmune subsidiary in Gaithersburg, MD and spun out six programs into a new startup called Viela Bio.
Viela springs into existence today with the support of a group of three marquee Chinese investors who have put up $250 million to get the company established and keep all its programs moving forward uninterrupted. And AstraZeneca is retaining the largest single minority stake in the company as it bids farewell to a group of investigators who have directed this work inside MedImmune for years.
Bing Yao, the head of MedImmune’s Respiratory, Inflammation & Autoimmunity Innovative Medicines unit, is taking the helm as CEO. Another AstraZeneca vet in the RIA unit, Jorn Drappa, will be the new chief medical officer and R&D chief.
Yao told me in a preview of today’s announcement that they’re still in the process of reviewing who at MedImmune will come along. But MedImmune chief Bahija Jallal — who emphasized the pharma giant’s commitment to assisting the biotech ecosystem in Maryland — says there will be no layoffs, with some making the jump to Viela and the rest of the people attached to these programs being assigned to other projects.
“We always run lean here,” says Jallal, so there’s no shortage of work for those who remain. The departing group have plenty on their plate as well.
“It’s a rich pipeline,” says Yao, citing a lead drug — inebilizumab — that’s in a potentially registrational Phase IIb study for a rare condition called neuromyelitis optica. Both the FDA and the EMA have endorsed the work with orphan drug status. The other two clinical programs are MEDI4920, an anti-CD40L-Tn3 fusion protein for an inflammatory condition called primary Sjögren’s syndrome, and MEDI7734 for myositis.
The consortium of investors includes Boyu Capital, 6 Dimensions Capital and Hillhouse Capital, which all met Yao’s criteria: Deep pockets, a longterm view of things and a big appetite for biotech. Boyu is an influential private equity group that also backed Greg Verdine’s LifeMine. And Wuxi Healthcare Ventures threw in with Frontline BioVentures to create 6 Dimensions in a merger last year.
In the long run, says the newly minted CEO, these are the kind of backers that will help build a staff of 100 over the next few years, while also assisting as Viela begins the early work of scouting the commercial prospects of its lead therapy. Viela, he says, can go all the way in becoming a fully integrated biotech company.
AstraZeneca has been shedding assets for years now as it concentrates its R&D cash around three key fields: Oncology first and foremost followed by cardio/metabolics and respiratory. The clinical stage drugs being spun out today have been listed with the remainder of the neurosciences programs as the “other” category of work being done at AstraZeneca, and execs emphasized that they’re retaining the Phase III lupus drug anifrolumab, where they have high hopes of success.
A spinout like this, says Jallal, is a natural result when you have a rich pipeline like AstraZeneca’s, where there are more drugs to develop than it can handle alone.
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