HONG KONG – Not even the 9,500 kilometers between Cambridge, U.K., and Tokyo, or the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, could prevent Japan’s Astellas Pharma Inc. from completing its acquisition of Cambridge-based Nanna Therapeutics Ltd. in a £12 million (US$14.78 million) deal.

Astella’s U.K. arm, Astellas Pharma Europe Ltd., purchased all of Nanna’s issued share capital through a share purchase agreement, making Nanna a wholly owned Astellas subsidiary. Under the terms, Nanna shareholders are entitled to future development milestones of up to £57.5 million.

Both Nanna CEO David Williams and an Astellas source declined to comment further on the deal’s financial terms. The deal’s impact on Astellas’ financial results for the fiscal year, which ends March 31, 2021, is expected to be immaterial.

But the source did say that Astellas stood to benefit from Nanna’s approach enabling “phenotype-based screening of broader chemical matter. [The approach] may be a gateway to new leads and targets in mitochondrial biology, including mitochondrial fission/fusion and mitophagy/autophagy. This broader chemical matter is critical for mitochondrial research as many traditional drug development libraries have systematically removed structures that impact the mitochondria.”

Astellas’ Tokyo-listed stock price (Tokyo:4503) shot up to ¥1,774.5 (US$16.49) on April 21 as the deal was announced. It closed at ¥1,749, a drop of 0.4%, two days later.

When asked why Astellas chose to acquire Nanna, the source explained that the deal would allow Astellas to “apply a unique high-throughput screening platform and the team that created this innovative approach to the development of new programs to treat mitochondrial and other diseases through its expertise in mitochondrial biology, chemistry, microfluidics and drug screening.”

“Mitochondrial biology is a primary focus of our research and development strategy, and we are working on the development of novel treatments for diseases of mitochondrial dysfunction. We seek out and apply new modalities or technologies whenever this can enhance our ability to bring new medicines to patients. We believe this acquisition will enable us to create new treatments that address unmet medical needs by combining Nanna’s unique technology platform with our research and development capabilities related to varied disease of mitochondrial dysfunction.”

From the other side of the deal, Nanna’s Williams described the acquisition as “synergistical” and said Nanna was “excited” to partner with Astellas in combining the two companies’ expertise. “[Astellas] has a strong record of research and development in mitochondrial biology, and we will strive to help expand on these achievements,” he said.

Williams also explained the deal’s genesis as follows: “We were always talking to everyone, including most, if not all, pharmas and biopharmaceuticals. We all know each other and there was an open dialogue.”

At the end of the day, among the various options open to Nanna, the partnership with Astellas “made the most sense,” he said.

When asked whether the COVID-19 pandemic with global lockdowns and travel restrictions had affected the deal, Williams laughed and said, “No one is on holiday,” as he answered BioWorld’s call from his office. He added that, “in a bizarre way, the virus made communication easier as everyone is working from home,” whilst also explaining that Nanna execs had already met their Astellas counterparts face-to-face before the virus hit.

Tokyo-based Astellas has been keeping busy of late. It inked a deal with Cytomx Therapeutics Inc. four weeks ago to develop T-cell engaging bispecific antibodies targeting CD3 and tumor cell surface antigens in cancer.

In contrast, Nanna was only founded around two years ago with a mission to “change how drug discovery was done.” Formerly known as Bactevo, after one of the company’s platforms, it changed its name to Nanna Therapeutics, inspired by the Norse goddess symbolizing bravery, kindness and daring, in August 2018. Prior to that, “we were constantly asked whether we were a bacteria company,” said Williams.

Nanna has a mitochondrial focus and is working to advance “a very nice portfolio” of therapies into the clinical phase. Williams noted two therapies from the portfolio currently at the research phase and close to reaching that point. One is a compound to treat MELAS (mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis and stroke-like episodes) and the second is a compound treating Kearns-Sayre syndrome.

The company has partnerships with Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, Wellcome Centre Mitochondrial Research and Innovate UK. It won funding from Innovate UK totaling £829,892 a year ago and said it would use the funds to apply its nanoscale medicines discovery engine to develop novel disease-modulating drugs.

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