Johnson & Johnson buys 18% stake in Crucell

Johnson & Johnson buys 18% stake in Crucell

Amsterdam: US health care products maker Johnson & Johnson Inc. has bought an 18% stake in Dutch biotechnology company Crucell NV for €301.8 million ($440 million) in hopes of developing a universal flu vaccine, the companies said on Monday.

In a joint statement, the companies said their immediate focus would be on developing a flu treatment in the form of “monoclonal antibodies"—which bind to a target protein, alerting the body’s own immune system to attack it.

The Leiden, Netherlands-based Crucell was awarded grants worth up to $69 million by the US government in August to develop its range of monoclonal antibodies for influenza, which Crucell says have shown early promise in fighting “a wide range" of seasonal and pandemic flu viruses.

The company claims the antibodies can fight any influenza, including swine flu and bird flu, and including those flu strains resistant to Tamiflu—the medicine currently most often used to slow their progression.

“Each year, vaccines must be formulated to address the current influenza strain," said Paul Stoffels, head of Johnson & Johnson research.

“A universal antibody or vaccine that protects against a broad range of strains would be an important advance in helping doctors and nurses manage the annual influenza season and control acute epidemic and pandemic outbreaks."

New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson is one of the world’s largest medical companies but is not one of the top 5 vaccine makers.

Crucell CEO Ronald Brus said his company was overwhelmed with interest after they published results in Science magazine showing the treatment’s potential, but Johnson & Johnson offered a deal that preserved a fair share of future profits for Crucell.

In addition, he said Crucell didn’t want to partner with any of the top 5 players in the vaccine market because they make large amounts of money from selling annual flu vaccines and so would have conflicting interests.

“You want to partner with the one that wants to enter the market, not the ones that want to defend their market," he said.

Under the deal, Crucell will retain the right to market products the companies develop jointly in Europe, while Johnson & Johnson will market them in the rest of the world.

Crucell will receive additional royalties and payments from Johnson & Johnson “worth hundreds of millions," Brus said, if the flu cure is marketed.

Crucell said the shares it is selling to Johnson & Johnson are newly created.

Shares in Crucell were up 3% at €16.43 in midday trading in Amsterdam.

Johnson & Johnson said the purchase would reduce its per-share earnings by $0.02 - $0.04 in 2009.

Besides a universal flu vaccine, Crucell and Johnson & Johnson said they hope to use similar antibodies to fight three other diseases, although they did not yet specify which.

Earlier this year Wyeth entered talks to buy Crucell for $1.35 billion, but it canceled the negotiations after Wyeth itself was bought for $68 billion by Pfizer Inc.

The agreement with Johnson & Johnson specifies that the US company won’t buy any more of Crucell’s shares for 3 years without Crucell’s consent.