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Galapagos, with latest deals, charts an unexpected journey to cell therapy

Belgian drugmaker Galapagos is branching into cell therapy, announcing Tuesday the acquisitions of two companies focused on the complex treatments.

Through these deals, Galapagos hopes to “disrupt” how a certain type of cell therapy known as CAR-T is developed and administered. One of the target companies, Cellpoint, has a supply model that it claims can deliver CAR-T therapies within a week, while also avoiding the logistical challenges which have so far hindered these medicines commercially.

Galapagos intends to apply this model to CAR-T treatments coming out of the labs of the other target company, AboundBio. The overarching goal, according to Galapagos, is to have three additional CAR-T candidates in human testing in the next three years.

“With the transactions announced today, we position ourselves as a potential innovator in CAR-T,” said Galapagos CEO Paul Stoffels in a statement.

To some on Wall Street, the deals seem an odd choice for Galapagos given that the company’s research efforts have historically revolved around cystic fibrosis and inflammatory diseases. The team at Raymond James, for example, claimed the “pivot to CAR-T was last on our list of expected” mergers and acquisitions for Galapagos, according to a client note from analyst Dane Leone.

Yet, for Galapagos, cell therapy represents a new start following a string of setbacks.

“This is a first key step in our strategic transformation to accelerate and diversify our pipeline,” Stoffels said, adding that he and the Galapagos team “continue to explore additional business development opportunities to further leverage our internal capabilities and renew our portfolio, and we expect to communicate a detailed update on our corporate strategy and portfolio later this year.”

About three years ago, Galapagos struck a $5 billion alliance with Gilead. The two had already been co-developing an experimental drug called filgotinib for various inflammatory diseases, and Gilead, seeing promise in Galapagos’ drug discovery and research capabilities, wanted to forge a deeper, more wide-ranging agreement.

But by the following summer, unexpected challenges began to weigh on the partnership. Filgotinib, which was up for approval in the U.S., received a surprise rejection from the Food and Drug Administration. Several months later, in December 2020, Gilead decided to stop trying to get filgotinib approved for rheumatoid arthritis in the U.S., and to hand back to Galapagos some rights to the drug.

Though filgotinib has been cleared for use in Europe and Japan, it remains unapproved in the U.S.