Astra Spins Off Immune Drug Startup With Investors' $250 Million

(Bloomberg) -- AstraZeneca Plc is spinning off a company to develop drugs for immune disorders with as much as $250 million from a group of investors.

The new company, called Viela Bio, will get six experimental drugs from Cambridge, England-based Astra, including a treatment in mid-stage testing for a rare disease of the eye and spinal cord. Called inebilizumab, the drug has special designation from U.S. and European regulators that may speed its path to the market.

Astra has been shepherding its research and development resources, $5.76 billion last year, to focus on cancer, heart and metabolic diseases, as well as respiratory conditions. While Astra will be the biggest shareholder in Viela, the startup’s funding will come from five investors, including China-based Boyu Capital, 6 Dimensions Capital and Hillhouse Capital.

“We have too many assets,” Bahija Jallal, president of Astra’s MedImmune unit, said in an interview. “We have a very rich pipeline and this is one way to make sure that they’re developed and in good hands.”

Other drugs included in the spinoff include one aimed at myositis and another that targets Sjogren’s syndrome, both in early-stage human testing. The new company will look at its drugs in a variety of conditions, said Bing Yao, who has left Astra to become Viela’s chief executive officer. The company is planned to have a staff of about 100 within three to five years, said Rob Skelding, a spokesman for Astra.

Anifrolumab, a drug in late-stage testing for lupus, a severe autoimmune disease, will stay with Astra. The condition affects some 5 million people worldwide, according to the National Resource Center on Lupus. Astra expects more data on that product’s performance in the second half of the year.

Astra has sometimes taken uncommon approaches to drug development. CEO Pascal Soriot last year entered an agreement worth as much as $8.5 billion with New York-based Merck & Co. to co-develop and co-market Lynparza, a cancer drug that promises to attain blockbuster status within three years.

The U.K. drugmaker has also been increasing its focus on China. Astra said this month that it has signed strategic cooperation agreements with tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Ali Health, a unit of the Internet retailer Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

“Our portfolio has always been really great for China, and we’re committed to that part of the world,” Jallal said.

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