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To Be More Than Quick Splash, Gilead’s CAR-T Purchase Faces Hurdles

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standing alone as a potential cure. With many caveats, the group estimated rough costs of each north of a half-million dollars per patient.

Another blood cancer hurdle for Kite is the disease multiple myeloma, the third deadliest blood cancer in the U.S. Kite has a product, but unlike competitors including myeloma therapy leader Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) via its alliance with Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE), it has yet to report any clinical data.

Beyond blood cancers are much more prevalent solid tumors, such as those in breast, lung, and colon cancer. There are no data yet to suggest CAR-T therapies can treat solid tumors, which have sophisticated defenses against T-cell attackers, but Gilead executives expressed confidence that Kite’s platform would eventually pay off there, too. (For solid tumors, Kite is working on cell therapies that are, in effect, close CAR-T cousins. They are engineered to attack targets inside tumor cells instead of on the tumor surface.)

While CAR-T therapies have notched remarkable gains in a few short years of lavish funding, those gains have been in very limited groups of patients. Ultimately, as with other new types of cancer treatments that stimulate the immune system, the future of the field is likely combinations of drugs that attack tumors from different angles.

Explorations into CAR-T combinations have barely begun. Kite should give Gilead some insight there: Kite has one study underway, partnering axi-cel with a Genentech antibody drug. Unlike Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Genentech’s parent Roche, and other cancer drug heavyweights, Gilead has very little in its own portfolio to combine with. But Gilead has plenty more to spend; the money it is paying for Kite is not even one-third of the $37 billion, as of June 30, it has on hand. While Gilead might not spend any more on CAR-T companies, wrote Leerink’s Porges, the deal “does not preclude [the company] from making further investments in other cancer treatment platforms.”

Image of human lymphoma tumor cells via the National Cancer Institute.

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