Astellas Pharma research lab in Santa Monica

Astellas Pharma research lab in Santa Monica Photo by Ringo Chiu.

A once-heralded pioneer of the Los Angeles biotech cluster – founded 20 years ago by UCLA scientists bent on moving cancer research from the work bench to the patient’s bedside – will exit the scene.

Agensys Inc. was founded in 1997 and sold 10 years later to Astellas Pharma Inc. of Japan for $537 million.

Industry observers estimate that Astellas pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into a 160,000- square-foot research lab in Santa Monica five years ago.

The company earlier this year decided to shut down the lab and lay off more than 200 cancer researchers in coming months.

Astellas executives confirmed last week that the facility is now up for sale, and industry buzz and various analysts said it may serve as an ideal site for some other biotech firm.

The closure of the LEED Silver-certified lab will mark an end to Agensys’ focus on antibody-drug conjugates, which combine the targeting of monoclonal antibodies with a payload that aims to kill cancer cells. The Tokyo-based drug maker said it has shifted its oncology strategy by expanding research into other potential cancer cures, including immuno-oncology.

Astellas said it would continue with clinical trials in progress by its Agensys affiliate, including its collaboration with Seattle Genetics, Inc.

Biotech trade advocates say Astellas’ pending departure is a big loss to Los Angeles. The company’s founding in 1997 helped foster resurgence for Los Angeles biotech, they say, alongside other newcomers such as Xencor Inc. of Monrovia.

“We need winners – we need success stories,” said Ahmed Enany, executive director of the Southern California Biomedical Council. “When you have a company like Agensys that’s been here 20 years, and they’re shutting down and laying off people, it’s disappointing. We want to grow our biotech cluster.”

Agensys, originally known as UroGenesys, was launched with $8 million in seed money from private donors and “angel investors,” many who had been grateful patients of UCLA physicians who spurred its development, according to UCLA. Among them was Dr. Arie Belldegrun, now the director of the UCLA Institute of Urologic Oncology, who became its founding chairman.

At its height, it had as many as 300 employees.

The UCLA scientific founders of Agensys generated more than 300 patents for therapeutic antibodies to treat solid tumor cancers of the prostate, kidney, pancreas, ovary, bladder, lung, colon, breast, and skin

Belldegrun is now an advisor for Kite Pharma, another biotech company he founded in Santa Monica that just sold for $12 billion to Gilead Sciences Inc.

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