AstraZeneca could land prime manufacturing outfit with pickup of Korea's Celltrion

A multinational pharma company may have more reason for wanting Celltrion than its biosimilar of multibillion-dollar blockbuster arthritis treatment Remicade. Rumors are swirling that AstraZeneca ($AZN) may have its sights set on the Korean biosimilars maker, and a buyout would give the British drugmaker--or any of its rivals--an established biologics plant in a strategic location, and one that's expanding, at that.

Celltrion is reportedly in buyout talks with AstraZeneca, Bloomberg says, citing Seoul's Financial News. And Celltrion Chairman Seo Jung Jin has said he plans to sell his stake in the company and two affiliates to a "multinational" pharma company. The Incheon, South Korea-based drugmaker confirmed that its largest shareholder is in discussions with financial adviser JPMorgan about a stake sale, but stressed that "no definite structure, decision or buyer regarding the stake sale has been determined."

For AstraZeneca, Celltrion would provide a growing biologics facility in an advantageous location. Asia has become a hub for biologics manufacturing, in part because the region's governments are offering deals to attract foreign interest. Some have said the trend will lead to innovations that will slash manufacturing costs for both biosimilars and new biologics.

AstraZeneca has already made inroads in Asia, as Chinese CRO WuXi AppTec late last year opened a biologics plant in Shanghai that will initially serve as a joint venture with the British drugmaker's MedImmune unit. "We have strong capabilities at MedImmune in biologics and essentially what we are doing is looking if we can further leverage those capabilities in a biosimilar or bio-superior world," AZ CEO Pascal Soriot told reporters Thursday (as quoted by Reuters).

According to Celltrion's website, its manufacturing site is one of the largest monoclonal antibody manufacturing facilities in the world. The plant has the capacity to turn out 140,000 liters per day, and the company plans a 90,000-liter expansion, to bring the plant's capacity up to 230,000 liters.

But with biologics and biosimilars manufacturing as promising an area of drug development as it is, AstraZeneca may not be the only company that likes what it sees. Other international pharma players have been active in building biologics plants in Asia, such as Novartis ($NVS), which is constructing a $500 million plant in Singapore, and Strides Arcolab's subsidiary Agila Biotech, which in March signed on with a developer for a $34.4 million facility in Malaysia. Companies eager to follow suit could take Celltrion's manufacturing capacity--and a biosimilar version of Remicade, too.

- get more from Bloomberg
- see the story from Reuters
- read Celltrion's statement
- see FiercePharma's take

Special Report: Conquering the complexities of biologics to get to biosimilars