Celgene antes up $55M, grabs option to buy the autoimmune upstart Anokion

Jeffrey Hubbell, Anokion

Celgene’s globetrotting business development team has focused on autoimmune diseases for its latest collaboration/option-to-buy biotech deal.

The focus this time: Anokion, a spinout of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. The biotech has been working on antigen-specific immune tolerance tech to retrain the immune system to ignore the rogue signals that spark an autoimmune response against healthy tissue while also restructuring protein therapies to make them invisible to the immune system, possibly opening a path to using some therapies that have been discarded in the past after they triggered an immune response.

In the deal, Celgene is handing over $45 million upfront and reserving another $10 million for unspecified preclinical work.

Jeff Hubbell, an investigator at the University of Chicago as well as CSO and chairman of the company, came up with the idea of decorating red blood cells with specific antigens in vivo, training the body to tolerate what had been intolerable. But over the last 18 months, the biotech’s R&D team, based in Cambridge, MA (the company’s HQ is in Lausanne) has been developing another approach centered on the liver that can also induce immune tolerance.

Tom Woiwode, Versant

“To induce antigen specific tolerance has been the Holy Grail for 20 years,” says Versant’s Tom Woiwode, who’s on the board.

Now, instead of raising a Series B, the Anokion team can use non dilutive cash to work their way through both approaches, studying multiple targets. One obvious target that Celgene is intrigued by, says Hubbell, is multiple sclerosis.

In its deal with Celgene, Anokion remains in charge of R&D until the Big Biotech makes a decision whether or not to pull the trigger on an acquisition. Versant’s Woiwode says this deal does not come with a preset buyout figure. That number would still have to be negotiated in a deal that essentially gives Celgene the right of first refusal for doing a deal.

Celgene’s money will now back an expansion of the Anokion team in Cambridge to about 30 people, who are still facing a 3.5- to 4-year trek for preclinical work. Hubbell tells me that the biotech has worked through some good mouse models on autoimmune conditions, and more work has yet to be done on non-human primates before they can get started on a human study.

Astellas was also deeply impressed with the work, and in 2015 set up a new company with Anokion called Kanyos Bio to use the platform tech to create new drugs for diabetes as well as celiac disease. That other company will continue its work in Cambridge, MA.

Anokion raised a $37.5 million Series A back in 2014 from Versant, which seeded the company, along with Novo Ventures and fellow Swiss company Novartis Venture Fund.

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