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£550k yields £85m as Quethera sold


By Mike Scialom


Quethera: squirting DNA in place to restore ganglions to use
Quethera: squirting DNA in place to restore ganglions to use

Japanese firm Astellas acquires gene therapy firm

Peter Widdowson took Quethera to success on a vertiginous scale
Peter Widdowson took Quethera to success on a vertiginous scale

In an astonishing triumph for what was until recently a little-known treatment for glaucoma, Babraham-based Quethera has been acquired by Japanese firm Astellas Pharma for £85million.

The firm’s gene therapy technique has been evolved by a small team led by Dr Peter Widdowson and Professor Keith Martin. Dr Widdowson has held senior roles at AstraZeneca and Pfizer, among others. Prof Martin is based at Cambridge Neuroscience and leads the glaucoma service at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

“It’s a done deal which was signed and sealed last Friday,” Dr Widdowson told the Cambridge Independent. “Having raised the £85million there are milestones starting a year down the line.

Quethera was established on an investment of less than £550,000 and so a return of greater than 100 times was very good for our seed investors, UK I2S and Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds.

Professor Keith Martin is on the right. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Keith Martin is on the right. Picture: Keith Heppell

“I’ll be working with Astellas during the handover, and Prof Martin will do some science for Astellas. Quethera is still a legal entity but is now part of Astellas Pharma.”

Under the terms of the purchase agreement, Astellas may pay up to £85million in aggregate consideration (up front and contingent payments) to Quethera shareholders to acquire the business, which was highly commended in the Cambridge Independent 2017 Science & Technology Awards.

Quethera was formed by Dr Widdowson in 2013 with the aim of working in the gene therapy field. He teamed up with Prof Martin in 2014.

The team identified glaucoma as a disease is where the ganglion cells in the retina die. The cell bodies are located in the retina, their long axons are connected to the brain, and if those cells die you lose the connection.

Dr Peter Widdowson at the Cambridge Independent Science & Technology Awards 2017 where Quethera was Highly Commended. From left are Quethera, Repositive, and LIF Nano. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Peter Widdowson at the Cambridge Independent Science & Technology Awards 2017 where Quethera was Highly Commended. From left are Quethera, Repositive, and LIF Nano. Picture: Keith Heppell

Interestingly, the decay of ganglions is also associated with other disorders including tinnitus and Alzheimer’s disease, which could be where Astellas will make a significant return on its investment.

The treatment technique would be similar for all such disorders, but in glaucoma it works by “squirting DNA into target cells which then restore normal function”.

Quethera has developed a “stripped-down viral box” called a vector, which is a virus without any damaging content. The program uses a recombinant adeno-associated viral vector system (rAAV) to introduce therapeutic genes into target retinal cells.

“Cells are designed to keep foreign DNA out,” Dr Widdowson explains. “However we can utilise the natural ability of viruses to introduce foreign DNA into cells which can then be designed to make therapeutic proteins.”

“The product is a squirt, intra-vitreally administered, that is injected. It uses the same route as Lucentis uses for macular degeneration.

Lucentis is a prescription drug developed by Genentech, a subsidiary of the Roche Group, which is administered into the eye by injection.

“This acquisition demonstrates Astellas’ commitment to proactively incorporate state-of-the-art scientific and technological advances and turn them into value for patients,” said Dr Kenji Yasukawa, president and CEO of Astellas Pharma.

“We believe the rAAV program has potential as a new therapeutic option for the treatment of refractory glaucoma through an intraocular pressure (IOP)-independent mechanism.

“It would address a high unmet medical need in glaucoma patients who are at risk of losing their eyesight.”

Dr Widdowson has now started Ikarovec, which will “develop treatments for diabetic macular edema”.

Quethera’s clinical development plan does not involve a Cambridge presence as the project will now have a US focus.



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