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Amgen buys Icelandic gene hunter Decode for $415 million

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. biotechnology group Amgen Inc has agreed to buy unlisted Decode Genetics, a pioneer in hunting down genes linked to disease, for $415 million in cash to boost its drive to develop better targeted drugs.

Founded in 1996, Decode blazed a trail in personal genomics by trawling Iceland's unique genetic heritage, which has changed little since the Vikings arrived more than 1,000 years ago, to work out the links between gene variants and common diseases.

But it failed to live up to early expectations after going public in 2000 and filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, weighed down by debts after 13 years of failing to make a profit, before re-emerging as a privately owned company.

Amgen and Decode said on Monday that the transaction did not require regulatory approval and was expected to close before the end of 2012.

As part of Amgen, Decode's scientists will help in the task of ensuring that experimental medicines hit the right spot. Their know-how should allow Amgen to identify promising new avenues earlier and close down dead-ends more quickly.

"This fits perfectly with our objective to pursue rapid development of relevant molecules that reach the right disease targets, while avoiding investments in programs based on less well-validated targets," Amgen Chief Executive Robert Bradway said.

PERSONALISED MEDICINE

UBS analysts said that the purchase, which will be funded by cash held offshore, was not surprising given that Amgen has key experimental drugs in its pipeline that were identified by human genetics work, including AMG 145 for heart disease and the bone drug romosozumab.

Understanding the genetic basis of disease has become increasingly important in drug discovery as the pharmaceutical industry shifts to developing personalized medicine that is suited for a patient's particular genetic profile.

It is an area where Decode has extensive experience and its scientists have published prolifically on genetic mutations linked to a range of diseases including cancer, heart conditions and schizophrenia.

Commercially, however, the Reykjavik-based company has been far less successful. Its drug development programs stalled and its DNA tests for diseases have not brought in much cash.

The acquisition leaves Decode's diagnostics business facing an uncertain future, with Amgen likely to evaluate this and other parts of the business after the deal closes.

Decode is currently owned by Saga Investments, a consortium including Polaris Venture Partners and ARCH Venture Partners, which bought it out of bankruptcy in 2010.

Polaris general partner Terry McGuire said his group had made a "substantial" return on its investment through the sale to Amgen, but he declined to give details or say if other large drug companies had been invited to bid for business.

CEO STAYS

Decode went public on a wave of euphoria about genetics after U.S. President Bill Clinton announced the completion of a working-draft DNA sequence of the human genome in 2000. Turning that gene promise into new drugs has proved harder and more time-consuming than initially hoped.

McGuire said that Decode's founder and chief executive Kari Stefansson, a neurologist by training, would continue as president of the company after the Amgen takeover and would be a vice-president of research at the U.S. company.

Other genomics companies have fallen by the wayside over the years, though one Human Genome Sciences has managed to develop the first new drug for lupus in half a century with its partner GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

GSK bought Human Genome Sciences for $3 billion this year, taking advantage of a dip in the U.S. biotech company's shares. Two people familiar with the situation said in July that Amgen had also offered to buy the business for twice as much in 2010.

(Editing by David Goodman)

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