Dive Insight:

With the purchase of Alexion, AstraZeneca is gaining a major foothold in an increasingly lucrative market for rare disease drugs. Alexion currently sells five medicines for seven different conditions and brought in more than $6 billion in revenue last year. Sales of its blockbuster Soliris, a monoclonal antibody approved to treat four rare diseases, topped $4 billion.

Rare diseases represent a “high-growth opportunity,” AstraZeneca said. Only about 5% of the 7,000 known rare diseases have approved treatments in the U.S.

After the transaction closes, AstraZeneca will create a group within the company focused on rare diseases. The unit, called Alexion, AstraZeneca Rare Disease, will be based in Boston.

The deal is part of a larger shift for AstraZeneca, once known best for medicines such as Crestor for high cholesterol and Nexium for gastrointestinal issues. The company has for years been devoting more resources to its fast-growing cancer drug business and increasing its presence in specialty care products.

With a global footprint, AstraZeneca aims to increase sales of Alexion’s current products, particularly the Soliris successor Ultomiris. When company executives announced plans to buy Alexion in December 2020, they pointed to AstraZeneca’s presence in the burgeoning Chinese market as an opportunity for the smaller biotech’s drugs.

To prepare for the combination, AstraZeneca and Alexion have made plans to shuffle their leadership. Alexion CFO Aradhana Sarin will become the new finance chief of AstraZeneca after the deal closes, while current AstraZeneca CFO Marc Dunoyer will become Alexion’s top executive and take on a chief strategy role at the giant drugmaker.