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Gene-therapy firm UniQure explores options including sale

[HONG KONG] UniQure NV is exploring options including a potential sale amid interest from pharmaceutical companies looking to expand in gene therapy, people with knowledge of the matter said.

The biotechnology company is working with advisers as it weighs options including a sale or partnerships, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the information is private. UniQure's shares have risen more than 151 per cent in US trading this year, giving it a market value of about US$2.7 billion.

Major pharmaceutical firms have been pursuing gene-therapy companies that promise to treat rare, debilitating diseases by correcting DNA flaws. While the field has yet to deliver a blockbuster, the promise of dramatic cures carrying multimillion-dollar price tags has triggered a flurry of deal activity. Cantor Fitzgerald LP said in February that UniQure "could be next" and may attract interest from large-cap companies such as Novo Nordisk A/S, Pfizer Inc. and Sanofi.

A deal with UniQure would bring access to a pipeline of experimental treatments for hemophilia, Huntington's disease and other disorders. The company is incorporated in the Netherlands, with about 200 employees spread between Amsterdam and Lexington, Massachusetts, according to its website.

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UniQure shares surged earlier this month after it canceled plans to attend Goldman Sachs Group Inc.'s annual health-care conference. The company said it pulled out due to a conflict with Chief Executive Officer Matt Kapusta's schedule.

No final decisions have been made, and there's no certainty the deliberations will lead to a transaction, the people said. A representative for UniQure declined to comment.

Biogen Inc. agreed earlier this year to buy Nightstar Therapeutics Plc, and Pfizer bought a stake in Vivet Therapeutics. Roche Holding AG agreed in February to acquire Spark Therapeutics Inc. for US$4.8 billion, following Novartis AG's US$8.7 billion purchase of AveXis Inc. last year.

UniQure developed Glybera, the first gene therapy approved for sale in Europe, though the US$1 million treatment had disappointing sales and the company said it wouldn't renew its marketing authorization in 2017. Since then, the company has focused on hemophilia treatments.

Gene therapy deals are starting to face some scrutiny from regulators. Earlier this month, the US Federal Trade Commission asked Roche and Spark for more information as part of its review of their pending deal. The latest FTC request came after the agency said in April it would need more time to examine the transaction.

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