Daiichi Sankyo has delved into the European antibody market and acquired privately-owned German biotechnology group U3 Pharma in a bid to boost its oncology pipeline.

The Japanese firm is paying 150 million euros to get hold of U3 which focuses on developing fully-human antibodies as potential therapies for breast, lung and colorectal cancers, among others. Established in 2001 by Axel Ullrich of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, U3’s lead product, which is being co-developed with Amgen, is U3-1287/AMG 888, which is the first fully-human anti-HER3 monoclonal antibody to inhibit oncogenic signaling and tumour proliferation. The compound will go into the clinic this year.

Takashi Shoda, Daiichi Sankyo’s chief executive, said that U3, which is based in Martinsried and employs 27 people, “is an ideal strategic fit for our oncology portfolio," as his firm has three monoclonal antibodies in development. The first is CS-1008, to combat malignant neoplasms, which is in Phase II, while the Tokyo-based group has the Japanese rights to market Amgen’s denosumab, which is currently in preparation for Phase III for osteoporosis and bone metastases in patients with advanced breast cancer.

Thirdly, Daiichi Sankyo also has the exclusive rights in Japan to nimotuzumab, CIMYM Biosciences’ treatment for advanced solid malignancies which is in Phase I. The company also recently expanded its antibody research joint venture with another German firm, MorphoSys.

The deal is the latest example of the keenness of Japanese drugmakers to expand overseas and biotechnology firms, especially those focused on cancer, are proving to be the most attractive propositions. Takeda Pharmaceutical Co is shelling out $8.8 million to buy Millennium Pharmaceuticals, giving it access to the lymphoma drug Velcade (bortezomib), while Eisai is expanding its oncology operations with its $3.9 billion acquisition of MGI Pharma.

Astellas Pharma has also recently boosted its presence in the USA, and specifically in antibody research, by acquiring the cancer specialist Agensys in a deal that could be worth up to $537 million.