Those frustrated at the painfully slow development of Cellectis’s allogeneic CAR-T therapies got another wake-up call today with news that the French group’s big pharma partner, Pfizer, was giving up direct control of the companies’ joint projects.
Not that this necessarily spells disaster for Cellectis. Under the agreement Pfizer has just announced the portfolio will be taken over by a new private business, Allogene Therapeutics, whose leadership will ring some familiar bells, given that it includes senior management that last year sold Kite Pharma to Gilead for $11.9bn.
The formation of Allogene thus signals the surfacing of what many saw as CAR-T’s A-team. Arie Belldegrun, Kite’s chief executive, and David Chang, its chief medical officer, are Allogene’s executive chairman and chief executive officer respectively.
Little wonder that the new company has managed to raise $300m in series A financing. Among biotech seed or series A rounds this is bettered only by Roivant, Verily and Vir; it beats Allogene’s cell therapy peers Biontech, Juno, Adaptimmune and Tmunity, whose start-up rounds brought in $270m, $120m, $104m and $100m respectively.
Allogene, along with Tmunity – a start-up at the University of Pennsylvania, the academic source of Novartis’s CAR-T work – is one of a new crop of cell therapy players springing up after the leading biotechs, Kite and Juno, fell prey to acquisitions.
As the name suggests Allogene will focus on allogeneic CAR-T cells, effectively taking control of the Cellectis assets Pfizer had gained in two earlier transactions. This comprises US rights to UCART19, plus 16 undisclosed preclinical targets thought to include BCMA and EGFRvIII.
At present all parties involved have stressed that Pfizer has not abandoned Cellectis, given that it retains a 25% equity stake in Allogene and an 8% interest in Cellectis. Cellectis, meanwhile, put out its own statement reminding investors that any economic benefit from its Pfizer alliance was unchanged, and would simply now flow from Allogene.
Nevertheless, Allogene told EP Vantage that Pfizer would no longer fund the Cellectis assets directly. It is also not entirely clear how much Pfizer was paid for the portfolio – no financial details of the “asset contribution agreement” are being disclosed – but the strong implication is that Pfizer has simply handed across control in return for the 25% Allogene stake.
If this is the case then it represents the effective ending of a tie-up that had achieved little beyond taking UCART19 into the clinic, and which failed to capitalise on its lead in allogeneic CAR-T therapy.
Beyond two case studies that grabbed early headlines, and promising but short-term remissions in the handful of subjects treated, development of Cellectis’s allogeneic portfolio has progressed at snail’s pace (JP Morgan – Cellectis accepts slow progress as a fact of life, January 9, 2018).
That said, after the approvals of the first autologous CARs, Kymriah and Yescarta, allogeneic therapies are gaining traction. In February Gilead struck a deal with Sangamo to look at zinc finger-edited CARs, Celyad has an early allogeneic CAR-T technology licensed non-exclusively to Novartis, and before Kite was bought by Gilead it gained rights to a source of stem cells for off-the-shelf use.
For Gilead and Novartis Allogene and Tmunity send a timely reminder that buying into an area as hot as CAR-T might not guarantee long-term success if the originators merely set up rival businesses boasting more advanced approaches. Investors in Gilead can separately reflect on the fact that their company – which before doing the Kite deal had no experience of cell therapies – no longer counts on the expertise of an executive as pivotal as Mr Chang.
Cellectis stock rose 10% this morning, presumably on hopes that Kite’s A-team can make a better fist of allogeneic CAR-T therapy than Pfizer did. Normally the loss of Pfizer as a partner would be taken badly, but the French company should be congratulated for persuading the markets that it has pulled off an even better deal.