UCB Flexes M&A Muscles to Bolster its Gene Therapy Capabilities

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Belgium-based UCB is flexing its M&A muscles once again. This morning, the company announced it bolstered its own gene therapy activities with the acquisition of Handl Therapeutics BV, a rapidly growing and transformative gene therapy company based in Leuven, Belgium.

Handl, which was founded last year, aims to deploy disease-modifying in vivo gene therapy to treat complex neurodegenerative diseases through AAV capsid technology. In its announcement this morning, UCB said the acquisition of Handl will augment the company’s existing early gene therapy pipeline with two research programs, a proprietary adeno-associated virus (AAV) capsid technology platform and capabilities.

“UCB’s global footprint and scientific expertise in neurodegenerative diseases, coupled with our shared cultures of scientific advancement and commitment to patients, creates an exceptional environment in which we can accelerate the development of gene therapies and change patients’ lives,” Florent Gros, founder and chief executive officer of Handl, said in a statement.

The Handl Therapeutics team will continue to be based in Leuven, Belgium, and will work very closely with UCB’s international research teams. 

In addition to the acquisition of Handl, UCB also forged a research and development collaboration with Lacerta Therapeutics, a Florida-based clinical-stage gene therapy company. Lacerta’s mission is to make AAV-based therapies available for all patients with rare and serious neurological disorders. The collaboration is expected to provide the company with access to a novel gene therapy program and proprietary AAV capsids. The collaboration will focus on an undisclosed central nervous system disease with a high unmet need.

Financial terms of the acquisition and collaboration were not disclosed. These deals build upon UCB’s strategic acquisition of Element Genomics, Inc. in 2018 that strengthened the company’s genomics and epigenomics research platforms aiding the identification of novel drug targets. 

UCB has a vision to move from symptomatic treatments to disease modification and eventually towards a cure. The acquisition of Handl and the R&D pact with Lacerta is expected to lead the company in the right direction. AAV-mediated gene therapy offers to deliver that potential and drive a fundamental change in how diseases are treated with the ability to remove or add disease-related proteins with a single treatment. A vast array of diseases are amenable to gene therapy and UCB said it is embracing this modality to expand its capabilities and ultimately transform the lives of patients with severe diseases.

UCB Chief Scientific Officer Dhavalkumar Patel said the company’s ambition relies on its ability to innovate and deliver highly differentiated medicines.

"The acquisition of Handl Therapeutics BV and the new partnership with Lacerta Therapeutics offers us the potential to drive a fundamental change in how diseases are treated, by moving us from treating symptoms to disease modification and eventually towards a cure,” he said in a statement. “We are delighted to be able to welcome a rich diversity of talent and expertise from both Handl Therapeutics BV and Lacerta Therapeutics. With their deep and wide-ranging knowledge, novel gene therapy platforms and drive for innovation, I am confident that together we will transform the lives of people living with severe neurodegenerative diseases.”

The acquisition and collaboration follow a few months after UCB acquired Engage Therapeutics for $125 million in an upfront payment. In that deal, UCB gained a pipeline aimed at treating epilepsy. Its lead program is the Phase II asset Staccato Alprazolam, which is designed to be used as a single-use epileptic seizure rescue therapy. UCB markets Nayzilam, a nasally administered benzodiazepine spray that is indicated for the acute treatment of intermittent, stereotypic episodes of frequent seizure activity that are distinct from a patient’s usual seizure pattern in patients with epilepsy 12 years of age and older.

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