12 years on, Astra draws a line under Medimmune

The acquisition marked Astrazeneca’s formal embrace of biologicals. Today the Medimmune name was dropped.

Astrazeneca’s $15.6bn acquisition of Medimmune in 2007 marked the last lavish biotech takeover of the previous cycle. After flirting for some time with whether and how the brand should be used, the UK company today said it would be “retiring” the Medimmune name.

In reality this says nothing about Astra’s holding of Medimmune, which it has wholly controlled for the past 12 years. But it will remind investors how tough it is for big pharma to integrate biotech acquisitions, especially because name changes often hide internal turmoil and Astra has suffered several high-level departures of late.

These have included Mark Mallon, Sean Bohen and Bahija Jallal, who respectively were head of product and portfolio strategy, chief medical officer, and head of the Medimmune unit. Astra’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, was himself rumoured to have been considering a move to head up Teva.

Still, you can hardly blame the company for wanting to draw a line under Medimmune. The takeover was criticised for having been overpriced, and Medimmune’s main strategic focus, a portfolio of vaccines, ultimately amounted to very little (Astra's acquisition of Medimmune still looks overpriced, June 26, 2008).

It was only when a few years later Astra decided to use the Medimmune name for its immuno-oncology division that it could make the case that tangible things were emerging from the technology it had acquired. The brand was used for naming some antibodies, so Imfinzi, for instance, was first known under the lab code MEDI4736.

However, this now looks to have been a brief experiment; there was never a point, for instance, at which Medimmune was run as a virtually autonomous entity, as has traditionally been the case with Roche’s 100%-owned Genentech business. Such is the fierce independence of Genentech is that it frequently develops projects that compete with those in its parent company’s R&D pipeline.

Immuno-oncology targets dropped

In a kind of cruel coincidence, as well as dropping the Medimmune name Astra today dropped three early clinical-stage projects bearing this brand: MEDI0562, an anti-Ox40 MAb, MEDI1873, a GITR agonist fusion protein, and MEDI9197, a TLR7/8 agonist; a year ago it had discontinued monotherapy trials of the anti-PD-1 MAb MEDI0680.

In terms of a physical presence, the Medimmune unit's European hub had been at Granta Park near Cambridge, UK, but the whole business will in future be directed from Astra’s global headquarters and R&D centre at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus in the city itself. After a delay this building is to be opened in the second half of 2020, Astra told a fourth-quarter financials press conference today.

Astra’s stock traded up strongly, climbing 6% on what the company hailed as its “first full year of growth since 2009”. Uncertainty over Mr Soriot’s commitment had at one point last year included rumours that the company had hired headhunters to find a successor as chief executive, and some might think that the strong 2018 could have provided him with a suitable high on which to exit.

Mr Soriot, however, was having none of it, today dismissing the headhunters story as “fake news”.

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