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Celgene, Bluebird Streamline CAR-T Partnership To Fight Myeloma

Xconomy Boston — 

The immuno-oncology field is moving fast these days, but the tough-to-treat blood cancer multiple myeloma has not been one of its early targets. Biotech partners Bluebird Bio and Celgene would like to change that.

The partners said today they would narrow the focus of their ongoing collaboration and go after multiple myeloma. Specifically, they want to engineer the T cells of multiple myeloma patients to hone in on a protein, known as B-cell maturation antigen (BCMA), that is found on the surface of most multiple myeloma cells.

The new collaboration is slated to last three years.

When the two companies first teamed up in 2013, Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) had an option to exclusive rights to any CAR-T therapies for cancer to come from the collaboration. Now those rights will be restricted to BCMA-related programs.

In explaining why they’ll no longer amass a broad array of programs together, Bluebird (NASDAQ: BLUE) officials indicated on a conference call this afternoon that the company wants to be more in charge of its therapies now that it has the wherewithal.

Robert Ross, Bluebird’s Senior VP of clinical development, said, for instance, that the company has “changed and grown dramatically,” and now has a big enough team and the cash needed to “independently expand and drive” a large pipeline of cancer therapies. Streamlining the alliance with Celgene, Ross said, will give Bluebird the opportunity to do that.

Bluebird executives also cited a need for flexibility given the quick progress being made in the field of immuno-oncology, where several companies are barreling ahead with new ways to prime the immune system to recognize and battle cancer.

CAR-T therapies, for instance—in which a patient’s own immune cells are extracted from the body, genetically modified to become better cancer killers, and sent back into the patient—have become a super competitive field.

Juno Therapeutics, Novartis, Kite Pharma, Cellectis, and others are all advancing products through or into clinical trials, and Bluebird officials said today that the company couldn’t remain competitive in the long-term while being tied to a single partner.

“It’s not at all because we didn’t get along [with Celgene] or think they’re a bad partner,” Bluebird CEO Nick Leschly said on the call. “ [The deal] made a lot of sense three years ago. I think it’s honestly a natural reflection of the evolution of the field, and what it takes to compete over the long term.”

Part of that means opening Bluebird up to do some other deals. On the call, executives noted a recent deal with Five Prime Therapeutics, for instance, which has already led to an unspecified preclinical CAR-T program. Ross said the company would be “aggressive” in pursuing more such collaborations. In addition, Bluebird is advancing other CAR-T programs, including undisclosed preclinical work on both blood cancers and solid tumors, on its own.

With Celgene, meanwhile, Bluebird will focus on the Summit, NJ-based company’s bread and butter—multiple myeloma, where Celgene has a multi-billion dollar franchise. Bluebird expects the first product from the partnership to go into clinical testing in early 2016. Dubbed BB2121, it will target the BCMA protein. Behind that could come “next-generation” anti-BCMA therapies as well.

Celgene will have an option to grab full rights to each anti-BCMA program, while Bluebird can opt to share profits in the U.S. Should Celgene buy in, Bluebird would be entitled to downstream payments as these products progress.

SEC filings show that Bluebird could get up to $205 million in additional milestone payments per product if it doesn’t opt to share U.S. profits and costs; and $100 million per product if it does. It’s gotten $25 million up front today from Celgene as part of the decision to amend their 2013 deal.

Shares of Bluebird slumped about 3.6 percent in after-market trading on Tuesday, but they are still trading at more than 10 times their $17 IPO price in 2013. In that time, investors have reacted with enthusiasm to Bluebird’s clinical progress with experimental gene therapies for beta-thalassemia and sickle cell disease. Until now, the company has kept most details of its immuno-oncology work close to the vest.

Photo courtesy of Linda Tanner via a Creative Commons license.