EP Vantage interview – LigoCyte buy boosts Takeda’s vaccine business

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Takeda’s $60m takeover of the Montana-based biotech LigoCyte is likely to be the first in a string of acquisitions as the Japanese firm pursues a growth strategy for its recently established vaccines unit, relying on buyouts as well as licensing in promising candidates.

It could also net Takeda a vaccine for the somewhat unusual indication of norovirus. LigoCyte’s lead product, a bivalent vaccine the firm believes to be active against almost all strains of the virus, is in phase II trials. LigoCyte is the only company with a norovirus candidate in the clinic. “The opportunity to have an impact on this disease with this vaccine candidate is what took us to consider LigoCyte,” Dr Rajeev Venkayya, head of Takeda’s vaccine business, told EP Vantage.

Unmet needs

“We have focused on unmet needs in infectious diseases – conditions for which we don’t currently have a vaccine. Through that analysis we identified norovirus as being an important public health priority and one that would greatly benefit from an effective vaccine,” he said. Such is Takeda’s interest in norovirus that it has bought LigoCyte before phase II data on this main product are available.

Norovirus infections are transient, but can be very unpleasant. In the winter months, emergency departments in large cities can see as many as 500 norovirus patients a day. Dr Venkayya says that the public health risk posed by the virus means that demand for a vaccine is high. “In terms of an individual illness it can be mild – it varies from person to person – but the community and public health impact is significant. Every time a kid has to stay at home some arrangements need to be made for childcare, and that takes parents out of the workplace, schools are closed down, and certainly the impact is even greater with long-term care facilities and hospitals.”

Should a successful vaccine be developed, it is possible that vaccination programmes similar to that currently seen with influenza could be put in place. Takeda expects that the public health burden and health economics will be taken into account by national governments when deciding whether there is a need for a nationwide vaccination programme. There is also a private market for vaccines among “people who are travelling overseas or plan to be on cruise ships, or those working in the food or healthcare industries".

First, though, the vaccine will have to be shepherded through the clinic. The phase II study is due to report next year, and patient recruitment is still underway. LigoCyte is developing three other vaccines, all of which are preclinical; one is for influenza, a second is for respiratory syncytial virus and the third is for rotavirus. Dr Venkayya says it is too early to say whether Takeda will want to take these projects forward; its immediate priority is norovirus.

Important strategy

The buyout is the first significant move within Takeda's vaccines unit since the division was set up in January. Dr Venkayya says that though the unit has kept a low profile so far, it has not been inactive.

“We have spent the last several months looking at ways to expand our business, at a number of technology platforms and vaccine candidates that are in development, and at various potential partners,” he says. “This expansion of our development pipeline through acquisitions like LigoCyte and licensing of promising vaccine candidates is an important strategy that we’re pursuing."

Takeda is taking a softly-softly approach to integrating LigoCyte, with Dr Venkayya referencing the cornerstone of medical ethics – first, do no harm – as an explanation of why Takeda is reluctant to disturb the current setup. “The LigoCyte team has done a very effective job of bringing a potential first-in-class vaccine to the point of phase II,” he says.

Over the next few months Takeda will integrate the nearly 40 employees into its vaccine division so that it is operating as a single team. Like its acquisition of Nycomed, Takeda will be hoping that the LigoCyte buy will mitigate its patent cliff, which is one of the steepest in pharma (EP Vantage Interview – Nycomed the answer to Takeda's woes, September 13, 2012).

The future could see Takeda’s vaccine unit look into other, more adventurous areas, but for now the company is content with prophylactic vaccines for infections. “There are many opportunities that we could pursue, such as therapeutic vaccines and cancer vaccines," said Dr Venkayya. "This is not to say that Takeda will not explore these opportunities, but in terms of where the vaccine business is focusing its time and attention, it’s on infectious diseases that have high impact, and particularly those that don’t have a vaccine.”

To contact the writer of this story email Elizabeth Cairns in London atelizabethc@epvantage.com

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