With $90M deal, Durham company keeps life-saving medical test in its stockpile

bioMérieux, a Durham-based biotech company, paid $90 million recently to acquire a San Diego firm that developed a test for acute kidney injury.
bioMérieux, a Durham-based biotech company, paid $90 million recently to acquire a San Diego firm that developed a test for acute kidney injury.

A French biotech company, with a large Durham presence, has spent $90 million to buy a San Diego firm that makes diagnostic tests to help doctors diagnose life-threatening problems faster.

BioMérieux's purchase of Astute Medical gives it full control over the company and all its intellectual property, including "NephroCheck," a kidney test that allows doctors to more easily check whether a patient could be suffering from acute kidney injury.

Stefan Willemsen, bioMérieux's corporate vice president for the Americas and CEO of its U.S. branch, said that both medical and business motives dictated the acquisition of Astute.

Ultimately, bioMérieux decided it was "better to have the company and its portfolio of products under development" under its own umbrella, Willemsen said.

The acquisition is also "right on the path of our strategy of providing high medical value solutions for critically ill patients," Willemsen said.

Tackling sepsis

The French company has its U.S. headquarters in Treyburn Corporate Park. It also manufactures testing equipment there, a factor that contributed to Durham County's decision in 2013 to offer a $400,000 business-incentive deal to land an expansion of the facility.

Already specializing in diagnostic tools, bioMérieux is trying with the latest deal to focus on a particular set of problems that crop up in hospital ERs and intensive-care units.

One of its more prominent offerings, a test for sepsis, looks for traces of procalcitonin, a particular combination of amino acids that's associated with the often-deadly infection.

Sepsis can sometimes trigger acute kidney injury, and the treatments for it involve the use of antibiotics that can themselves strain a patient's kidneys. So Astute Medical's test, which looks for a couple of proteins that seem to serve as "markers" of kidney injury, complements the so-called "PCT" sepsis test.

Separately or together, the idea is that the tests help doctors identify serious medical issues, so they can not only treat them but keep the use of antibiotics to a minimum and thus reduce the risk of contributing to the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria.

Stefan Willemsen
Stefan Willemsen is bioMérieux's corporate vice president for the Americas. Geoff Green bioMérieux

Medically, the problem's relevant in North Carolina because the state's among those where sepsis-related deaths are more common than they are elsewhere in the U.S., in part because of access to care.

"We want to improve that condition and the treatment of that condition in North Carolina, and take that as a motivation to talk to the health-care authorities in the state" to urge improvements in treatment protocols, Willemsen said.

More competition

On the business side, the PCT test for sepsis though profitable for bioMérieux relies on technology the company's licensed from another source. Those licenses aren't as rare as they used to be, so there's more competition in the marketplace, and those competitors have shown themselves willing to undercut bioMérieux's price.

Company officials also acknowledged that by gaining control of Astute Medical's intellectual property, bioMérieux also gains control over future decisions about licensing it.

One other company has a license to sell the test, and "we'll stay with it," Willemsen said.

BioMérieux "will eventually consider licensing" NephroCheck to other companies that make testing gear that can handle larger volumes than its own. It wants to "make it available to as many patients as possible," he said.

Astute Medical has at least one other test under development, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to clear it, he said.

On a separate track, bioMérieux had previously bought in to another San Diego company, Banyan Biomarkers, that's developing a blood test for traumatic brain injury. The medical strategy there is similar to those of the sepsis and kidney tests, to come with something that will help doctors "in an emergency room or ICU setting to make faster decisions" about treatment, Willemsen said.

BioMérieux booked a worldwide net income of 238 million euros in 2017, the equivalent of $293.5 million at current exchange rates.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg