- MedImmune, AstraZeneca plc's biologics R&D unit, will spin out six experimental drugs into a standalone biotech, aiming to speed development of assets that fall outside of its core areas of research.
- Viela Bio will launch with a sizable war chest of $250 million, funded by a group of outside investors led by Chinese firm Boyu Capital. AstraZeneca will hold on to the largest minority stake in Viela.
- Among the six assets MedImmune plans to transfer to Viela is an anti-CD19 monoclonal antibody currently in Phase 2 testing for neuromyelitis optica, a rare disorder affecting the optic nerve and spinal cord. The other two clinical and three preclinical biologics all target inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Spin outs can be an attractive option to maximize the value of pipeline candidates that might otherwise fall by the wayside or progress slowly.
AstraZeneca, MedImmune's parent, has established a clear focus on oncology, respiratory and cardiovascular and metabolic disease, focusing resources on areas in which it believes it can compete best. Autoimmune diseases — where Viela will focus — is therefore less of priority.
By spinning out the six biologic candidates into a company it holds stake in, AstraZeneca may be able to more quickly realize any potential upside of the molecules in question.
"We have a strong early-stage Inflammation & Autoimmunity portfolio that is making great progress. However, we simply have more projects than we could ever hope to take through clinical development," said a MedImmune representative in an emailed statement.
"By establishing Viela Bio, we are creating an optimal environment for the continued development of our promising early-stage biologics portfolio in inflammation and autoimmunity."
Spinouts aren't uncommon in biotech. In perhaps the most notable recent example, Biogen Inc. spun off two marketed hemophilia drugs and several pipeline programs into what became BioVerativ Inc. Twenty months later, French drugmaker Sanofi SA bought BioVerartiv for $11.6 billion.
In another example, when Johnson & Johnson bought Swiss biotech Actelion Pharmaceuticals Ltd. for $30 billion in early 2017, the pharma giant decided to create a separate company (later named Idorsia Ltd.) to house Actelion's early-stage candidates.
While both of those spinouts involved significantly more money, the principles are similar. Generally speaking, a standalone company can better focus on pushing early-stage candidates through clinical development, especially when those assets lie outside a pharma's research plans.
AstraZeneca did not disclose what stake it will hold in Viela, but as the largest minority shareholder it will stand to benefit from progress the spinout makes.
Bing Yao, currently head of MedImmnue's Respiratory, Inflammation & Autoimmunity Innovative Medicines unit, will become Viela's new CEO, while Jorn Drappa, VP of clinical development in the same division, has been appointed head of R&D.
Viela's clinical pipeline will include the aforementioned anti-CD19 mAB — called inebilizumab — as well as an anti-CD40L-Tn3 fusion protein targeted at primary Sjögren's syndrome and an anti-ILT7 mAb for myositis, both of which are in Phase 1.
MedImmune said a "select number of employees" would transfer to Viela and the hiring process is underway to recruit both internal and external candidates. Viela will lease space on MedImmune's campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland.