Ionis lays off majority of Akcea staff, expands Sobi Tegsedi deal

After taking Akcea inhouse last year, Ionis Pharmaceuticals is laying off 70% of the staff.

The move comes as Ionis expands an earlier deal with Swedish Orphan Biovitrum (Sobi) to now distribute rare disease med Tegsedi in North America. Ionis had already struck a deal in December with Sobi to distribute Akcea’s Tegsedi and Waylivra in Europe.

The layoffs primarily affect Akcea’s Tegsedi field team and support staff, Ionis reported in an SEC filing. Akcea retains marketing duties for Tegsedi in the U.S. and Canada and will continue to lead Tegdesi’s global commercial strategy.

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Ionis called the plan a reorganization of Akcea’s workforce “to better align with immediate needs of its business.” Akcea will focus on next-generation “high priority programs,” including its proprietary ligand conjugated antisense (LICA) IONIS-TTR-LRx, Ionis added.

Akcea employed about 300 people; those affected were notified on Monday. No executive announcements were made, but, former Akcea CEO Damien McDevitt had already left the company in January, joining Aspen Neuroscience as president and CEO.

The FDA approved Tegsedi in 2018 to treat ATTR polyneuropathy, but sales have been lower than expected. Ionis reported $70 million in combined sales of Tegsedi and Waylivra in 2020; it continued to make the bulk of its revenue from Spinraza royalties at $287 million. Tegsedi's competitor, Alnylam’s Onpattro, reported much higher sales of $306 million in 2020.

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Tegsedi, along with others in the ATTR therapy market, was negatively affected by COVID-19, with fewer new diagnoses last year. SVB Leerink lowered sales expectations for the drug for 2020 from $158 million to $118 million and predicted “lower market share in 2021 and beyond” for the product.

Tegsedi still fell short of that revised estimate. Onpattro, however—for which SVB Leerink lowered its sales target to $298 million because of the pandemic—exceeded it.