Horizon Therapeutics to acquire MedImmune Spinout Viela Bio in deal with equity value of $3.05 billion

Gaithersburg’s Viela Bio, spun out of AstraZeneca’s MedImmune in 2018, has been acquired by Ireland-based Horizon Therapeutics in a $3.05 billion deal.  

During a conference call this morning, Horizon Therapeutics Chief Executive Officer Tim Walbery pointed to the depth of Viela’s research and development programs, the company’s understanding of common mechanisms of autoimmunity, and its strong legacy management from MedImmune as net positives for Horizon. During the call, Walbery said Viela is a “strong strategic fit” that will drive long-term and sustainable growth for Horizon.

“The acquisition of Viela significantly accelerates our strategy by adding a portfolio of novel pipeline medicines ranging from Phase I to Phase II in development; it expands the capabilities of our current strong R&D team; and it expands our commercial portfolio with Uplizna™, an on‐market biologic for a rare disease,” Walbery said.

In its announcement, Horizon pointed to Viela’s pipeline and recently-approved rare disease treatment Uplizna as a complement to its own pipeline of assets for rare and autoimmune diseases. Uplizna was greenlit by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June 2020 for adults with neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD) who are anti-AQP4 antibody positive. When Uplinza was approved, it became the first and only FDA-approved B-cell-depleting humanized monoclonal antibody for the treatment of NMOSD, a rare, severe, autoimmune disease that attacks the optic nerve, spinal cord and brain stem. The disease which leads to loss of vision and paralysis, in adults who are anti-aquaporin-4 (AQP4) antibody positive. In a conference call this morning, Horizon noted that Uplinza will complement that company’s Tepizza, which was approved in January 2020 for the treatment of Thyroid Eye Diseases, a progressive autoimmune disorder.

Viela adds a biologics pipeline with four candidates currently in nine development programs to Horizon. Each of Viela’s molecules targets central pathways that are implicated in a wide range of autoimmune diseases, providing many avenues for potential growth, the company said. In addition to its FDA-approved indication, Uplinza is being studied in a Phase III clinical trial for myasthenia gravis, a chronic, rare autoimmune neuromuscular disease. It is also being assessed in IgG4-related disease, a group of disorders marked by tumor-like swelling and fibrosis of affected organs. Although the study has been temporarily halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Uplinza is also being studied in a Phase II trial for kidney transplant desensitization.

Other assets Viela has been studying include VIB4920 is an investigational fusion protein designed to block a key co-stimulatory pathway involved in many autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. That candidate is being assessed in a Phase IIb trial in Sjögren’s syndrome and Phase II trials for kidney transplant rejection and rheumatoid arthritis. VIB7734, a monoclonal antibody, is in Phase II for systemic lupus erythematosus and in Phase I for treatment of COVID-19-related acute lung injury. The third experimental asset is another monoclonal antibody, dubbed VIB1116, which is expected to enter the clinic later this year.

Walbery pointed to these candidates and said they are expected to be key revenue drivers for Horizon within the next few years.

“We believe the three currently approved or clinical‐stage Viela candidates each represents a more than $1‐billion annual net sales opportunity, and we intend to invest in expanding the indications being pursued for these candidates in order to realize their full potential,” Walbery said. ”These pipeline candidates are largely in disease areas where Horizon has late‐stage development and commercial expertise, and they are highly complementary to our key therapeutic areas. This acquisition also opens the door to attractive therapeutic areas and rare diseases where Horizon has not historically had a presence.”

Not only will the Viela pipeline play an important role for Horizon, so too will the company’s R&D team. Walbery said the approximately 60 Viela R&D employees will augment Horizon’s current R&D team of approximately 150 employees.

“They bring extensive experience in early‐stage pharmacology research and translational science to develop pipeline candidates with novel mechanisms from preclinical stages into the clinic,” Walbery said of the Viela R&D team.

In a statement, Viela Bio CEO Bing Yao said he was pleased Horizon recognized the value of the company’s pipeline, its commercial product, and its team of employees.

“We believe that the combined pipeline, including the pursuit of additional potential indications, has the potential to yield innovative new medicines to treat autoimmune and severe inflammatory diseases. Our collective R&D expertise coupled with Horizon’s commercial capabilities has the potential to provide benefit to more patients with high unmet treatment needs,” Yao said in a statement.

Under terms of the deal, Horizon will acquire all outstanding Viela stock at $53 per share. Horizon previously announced it had $2.08 billion in available cash and cash equivalents in December. Those funds will be used for the acquisition. The remaining funds necessary will be financed, the company said. The transaction is expected to close by the end of the first quarter of 2021.

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Alex Keown is a freelance journalist who writes about a variety of subjects including the pharma, biotech, and life science industries. Prior to freelancing, Alex has served as a staff writer and editor for several publications.