Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) will co-develop three cell therapies for cancer with Immatics, a German biotech with ties to MD Anderson Center Center in Houston. Celgene will pay Immatics $75 million in cash up front to start the deal.
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Each of the three programs could net Immatics another $505 million apiece in downstream payments, though that cash may never materialize. Celgene will have options to grab rights to each program and assume the costs of development.
The deal centers around a form of immunotherapy being developed by Immatics known as T cell receptor (TCR) therapy. These treatments are similar to the CAR-T therapies that first came to market in 2017 and modify a patient’s own immune cells to seek out and destroy tumors. But the approved CAR-T therapies only work for a fraction of patients with a few blood cancers, and face significant logistical hurdles and other commercial questions. Immatics is one of the companies trying to broaden the reach of cell therapy by focusing on TCR.
Unlike CAR-T, TCR treatments are meant recognize targets inside a tumor cell, whereas CAR-T therapies can only get at targets on the surface of cancer cells. Several companies, like Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD), Novartis (NYSE: NVS), and TCR² Therapeutics are developing TCR treatments. But few have advanced into clinical studies thus far.
Celgene has already bet on the future of cell therapy by buying CAR-T developer Juno Therapeutics in 2018 and aligning itself with Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE). That focus is continuing even as the company barrels towards its $74 billion sale to Bristol, a deal that should close by the end of the year. In selling the combination to shareholders earlier this year, the New York pharma pointed to the sales potential of the Bluebird multiple myeloma cell therapy bb2121 and the Juno CAR-T for lymphoma liso-cel. The Immatics deal stocks Celgene with three more cell therapy programs being developed for solid tumors.
Immatics, meanwhile, already has alliances in place with Roche, Amgen, Genmab, and MorphoSys to develop different types of cancer immunotherapies. The company launched a US division in 2015 based on research at MD Anderson.