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Bluebird Adds to CAR-T Arsenal With Five Prime Antibody Deal

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated 5/27/15 12:45 pm. See below.] Bluebird Bio is expanding its technology reach with antibodies from Five Prime Therapeutics as part of its plan to develop next-generation cancer therapies.

Cambridge, MA-based Bluebird (NASDAQ: BLUE) specializes in gene therapy, and its progress treating sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia, both rare blood disorders, is one of the most closely watched stories in biotech. Even the most incremental pieces of good clinical news boost its share price, as happened last week, with the company now boasting a $5.7 billion market valuation and a $184 share price that is ten times its public debut in 2013.

Bluebird is also using genetic modification for another high-profile pursuit: the development of cancer treatments using a patient’s own T cells, known as chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR-T) therapy.

The Five Prime (NASDAQ: FPRX) deal gives Bluebird another tool for CAR-T development. Five Prime, of South San Francisco, CA, specializes in finding human antibodies—a key protein in the immune system—that can be used as drugs themselves or as research tools. The company also has a track record of finding new targets for drugs to hit, no small feat for a small biotech.

The companies said today Bluebird will use Five Prime’s antibodies against an undisclosed cancer target—a protein on the surface of both hematologic and solid tumor cells. In CAR-T therapy, a piece of antibody is grafted into the T cell (hence the “chimeric” description) to help the cancer-killing cell lock in on its target.

The parties declined to name the protein or say which tumor types feature the protein, but Five Prime chief business officer Aron Knickerbocker said Five Prime discovered it and thought it would be “well suited” to attack with a CAR-T approach. The company approached several potential partners, Knickerbocker said.

Under the agreement, Bluebird will pay Five Prime $1.5 million upfront, practically a rounding error for Bluebird. Five Prime could earn more than $130 million per product that stems from the collaboration, plus royalties on sales if they ever come to pass.

It’s not a sizable financial deal, but Knickerbocker said Five Prime wanted the program to develop quickly “with capable partners” and so chose Bluebird.

The deal is notable for other reasons. First, Bluebird went public two years ago in part on the strength of its deal to develop CAR-T therapies with the much larger Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG). But the partners have revealed little about their work, except to say Bluebird would have the first product in the clinic in 2016. It wasn’t immediately clear if the Five Prime technology would become part of that first clinical effort. [Update: A Bluebird spokesman said late Tuesday the first product is still on track to reach the clinic in early 2016, and it is not based on Five Prime technology.]

Meanwhile, in the hands of Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO), Novartis (NYSE: NVS), and Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE), CAR-T programs have shown stunning success in early trials for some hematologic cancers.

But their usefulness in solid tumors—a much larger category of cancers of the breast, lung, and several other organs—remains unknown. The first data returns on solid tumor CAR-T programs are on the horizon; Bluebird is signaling with the Five Prime deal it wants to join that group.

The deal also strengthens the signal that Bluebird, once the junior dealmaking partner, has leverage to find deals at modest prices as it shops for pieces to complement its own technology. Last year, Bluebird bought Precision Genome Engineering, a privately held gene-editing technology company in Seattle, last fall, also for a modest sum.

Bluebird officials were not immediately available for comment.

Photo courtesy of Linda Tanner via a Creative Commons license.