AstraZeneca said today its MedImmune subsidiary acquired Spirogen, in a deal that could net up to $440 million for the privately held biotech focused on antibody-drug conjugate technology for oncology.

MedImmune will pay $200 million up front for all of Spirogen’s shares, plus an additional up to $240 million tied to undisclosed development milestones – not counting existing out-licensing agreements and associated revenue streams.

“This deal reflects the very significant progress made by our scientists, most notably over the last two years, as we have applied our warhead and linker technologies to the development of highly potent and specific antibody-drug conjugates,” Chris Martin, D.Phil., FIChemE, Spirogen’s CEO, said in a statement. “We believe that pyrrolobenzodiazepine [PBD]-armed antibody-drug conjugates will emerge as a critical component in the next generation of cancer biologics with the potential to make a difference for oncologists and their patients. We look forward to combining our world-class capabilities in this area with MedImmune’s ability to develop this exciting class of oncology drugs.”

Spirogen has developed a class of highly potent cytotoxic warheads based on its PBDs — DNA minor groove binding agents that bind and cross-link specific DNA sites of cancer cells. That action blocks the cancer cells’ division without distorting its DNA helix, thus avoiding drug resistance. One of Spirogen’s standalone PBD agents is in a Phase II study in acute myeloid leukemia.

Spirogen was founded in 2001 as a spin-out from several institutions including University College London, with partial funding by Cancer Research UK.

The acquisition of U.K.-based Spirogen was one of two moves disclosed today by AstraZeneca that are aimed at strengthening its pipeline of cancer treatments.

MedImmune – AstraZeneca’s worldwide biologics R&D unit – also agreed to pay $20 million for an equity investment in ADC Therapeutics, to be matched by Auven Therapeutics, the majority shareholder in both Spirogen and ADC Therapeutics. The latter develops ADCs targeting major cancers such as breast, lung, prostate, renal and blood.

MedImmune will make an undisclosed upfront payment, with undisclosed development milestones for two programs from a defined list, and a cost- and profit-sharing arrangement with MedImmune representing the majority share. ADC Therapeutics has the option to co-promote one of the products in the U.S.

“The cutting-edge technologies developed by Spirogen and Swiss-owned ADC Therapeutics complement MedImmune’s innovative antibody engineering capabilities, enabling us to accelerate antibody-drug conjugates into the clinic,” said Bahija Jallal, Ph.D., evp, MedImmune.

AstraZeneca acquired MedImmune in 2007 for $15.6 billion. Since then, MedImmune has focused on developing a comprehensive oncology portfolio focused on antibody-drug conjugates and immune-mediated cancer therapy.

Oncology is one of three therapeutic areas of focus identified by AstraZeneca in March by CEO Pascal Soriot; the other two are cardiovascular & metabolic disease; and respiratory, inflammation & autoimmunity diseases.

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