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Astellas adds to ‘off-the-shelf’ cell therapy capabilities with Poseida deal

Astellas Pharma is betting again on cell therapy, announcing Wednesday a deal with Poseida Therapeutics to develop donor-derived treatments for cancer.

Through the partnership, the companies aim to create two allogeneic, or “off-the-shelf,” cell therapies for solid tumors. Astellas will pay Poseida $50 million upfront, and could owe another $550 million if certain milestones are met.

The partnership is the latest step in Astellas’ plans to build up its cell therapy capabilities. The company zeroed in on genetic medicine as part of a strategic plan launched in 2018 to offset patent expirations for some of its top-selling drugs. The company has since made several gene and cell therapy deals.

Astellas’ largest investments have been in gene therapy, headlined by its $3 billion buyout of Audentes Therapeutics in 2019.

But Astellas has used dealmaking to pick up cell therapy assets as well. The company had already bought Ocata Therapeutics to gain an eye disease cell therapy prior to its 2018 plan, and in 2019 acquired Xyphos Biosciences and its technology for making cell therapies.

Astellas has also shown interest in “off-the-shelf” cellular medicines, which are meant to be more convenient alternatives to personalized cell treatments. Last year, it acquired an 8.8% stake in Poseida, gaining an exclusive right to cut a deal for a donor-derived cell therapy targeting solid tumors. A research pact with Kelonia Therapeutics involving so-called in vivo therapies, which do their work inside the body, followed in February.

The expanded deal with Poseida gives Astellas more allogeneic prospects. “The ultimate goal is to create several programs for solid tumors,” Chief Scientific Officer Yoshitsugu Shitaka said of the company’s overall strategy in an interview earlier this year.

Astellas’ bet comes as allogeneic cell therapies have struggled to find a niche, however. Multiple experimental cancer treatments have had trouble meeting the bar set by personalized therapies, leading to investor skepticism and declining stock prices for several companies in the field. Some have responded by changing their development strategies or pivoting to autoimmune disease research.

Poseida’s most advanced work has been in blood cancer, where it’s developing a handful of cell therapies through an alliance with Roche. Though its programs have shown promise, they trail behind marketed treatments. The company has lost more than 80% of its value since going public in 2020.