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Belgian drug maker buying Cambridge startup Ra Pharma for $2.5b

Another Massachusetts biotech is being bought by a big foreign drug company.

Belgian-based UCB said Thursday it plans to buy Ra Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company which is developing treatments for rare diseases, for about $2.5 billion. UCB is paying $48 a share, more than double Ra’s closing price Wednesday.

Both companies have focused on immunology disorders, including myasthenia gravis, a rare and incurable autoimmune disease that causes weakness in various muscle groups. It afflicts about 200,000 people in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

In December, Ra announced positive results of a mid-stage clinical trial for an experimental drug to treat the disease. The compound, zilucoplan, is now in late-stage trials, and results are expected in early 2021.

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“Ra Pharma is an excellent strategic fit” for UCB, said Jean-Christophe Tellier, chief executive of the drug firm, whose headquarters is in Brussels. UCB has its own experimental medicine to treat the same disease in a late-stage trial.

Myasthenia gravis is an unpredictable and chronic autiummune disorder characterized by weakness and rapid fatigue of any of the muscles under a person’s voluntary control, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s caused by a breakdown in communication between nerves and muscles.

Symptoms include weakness of arm and leg muscles, drooping eyelids, double vision, and difficulties with speech, chewing, swallowing, and breathing.

Although Ra is testing zilucoplan as a remedy for myasthenia gravis, researchers are also studying it as a possible treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the deadly degenerative neurological disorder sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Douglas Treco, Ra’s chief executive, said UCB shares his 11-year-old startup’s commitment to developing treatments for rare immunology and neurology disorders.

“I firmly believe it is the right partner for us to advance new treatment options from our unique early and late stage pipeline to patients,” he said.

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UCB has more than 7,500 employees in about 40 countries, including 1,300 in the United States — it has two offices in Massachusetts. The company has a market value of $12 billion. Ra, with a market value of over $2 billion, has nearly 60 employees, most of them in its laboratories in Bedford.

As one of the world’s leading biopharma hubs, Massachusetts has spawned or nurtured several biotechs that have been bought by large multinational drug firms in recent years.

In January, Tokyo-based Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. closed a blockbuster $62 billion deal to buy Shire, which was headquartered in Ireland but had most of its employees in Massachusetts.

In 2018, the Swiss pharma giant Roche bought Cambridge-based Foundation Medicine for $2.4 billion.


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com