Astellas Buys Stem Cell Gene-Editing Firm Universal Cells for $102.5M

Xconomy Seattle — 

A Seattle-based company developing a universal source of stem cells for cell therapies has been acquired by Tokyo-based Astellas Pharma for $102.5 million.

Universal Cells’ technology aims to make stem cells that don’t have some of the problems that current cell therapies face, such as the immune rejection of transplanted cells. This is an attractive prospect for Astellas, which has been working to get into the cell therapy business. Universal Cells, which was founded in 2013, edits the genes of stem cells to block their production of specific human leukocyte antigen (HLA) molecules that help signal to the immune system that the cells are foreign and need to be attacked.

The hope is that the cells won’t need to be “HLA matched” to patients receiving the cells and would be at lower risk of being rejected by the immune system, reducing the need for patients to take immune-suppressing drugs. Having a universal source of cells would also reduce the time and cost of cell therapies.

Astellas and Universal first started working together in October of last year, when Astellas licensed Universal’s technology for a single indication (the indication wasn’t disclosed). Today’s deal will allow Astellas to use the technology for other diseases. Astellas says Universals’ technology complements its own—Astellas says it can turn stem cells into specialized cells for therapies.

With this latest deal, Astellas is continuing to build up its cell therapy business. It formed the Astellas Institute for Regenerative Medicine in 2016 after it acquired Ocata Therapeutics of Marlborough, MA, which has been working on stem cell-based therapies for certain forms of blindness.

Another Japanese pharma company also recently announced a partnership with a stem cell company. See our story about Takeda Pharmaceutical’s tie-up with Wisconsin-based Cellular Dynamics, which is working on induced pluripotent stem cells and is owned by Fujifilm.