- Atara Biotherapeutics, a California-based developer of cell therapies, will sell a large factory it built there to a contract manufacturing division of Japan's Fujifilm, announcing Wednesday a $100 million deal with Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies.
- The facility, which encompasses 90,000 square feet in Thousand Oaks, California, was once a key component of Atara's strategy for developing and producing cell-based treatments for cancer and autoimmune diseases. Now, however, the biotech will rely on Fujifilm as a supplier under a long-term agreement the two companies signed.
- When the deal closes — expected by April — Fujifilm said it plans to offer positions to the 140 Atara employees that currently work at the Thousand Oaks site, citing their experience and skill in manufacturing cellular immunotherapies.
Manufacturing cell therapies is considered to be more complex and labor-intensive than producing the small molecule and biologic drugs that are the mainstay of biotech and pharmaceutical companies' pipelines.
Initially, as more and more companies began developing cell therapies, relying on the few contract manufacturers that specialized in their production was a risky proposition, inviting delays or added costs. But over time contract manufacturers like Fujifilm, Catalent and Lonza have invested heavily in cell and gene therapy manufacturing, building or buying factories dedicated to the treatments.
That expansion may change the calculus of biotechs which previously sought to invest in building their own manufacturing capacity.
Atara, for example, pitched its facility in Thousand Oaks as a "cornerstone" and "key milestone" for the company when the site opened three and a half years ago.
Now, Atara is transferring ownership and operations to Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, or FDB, which it will rely on to supply its cell therapies from the plant.
"We believe that now is the right time for a strategic relationship with FDB to provide us with expert manufacturing capabilities, as needed," said Paschal Touchon, Atara's CEO, in a statement.
The companies said their partnership could extend to 10 years. Under the agreement, Atara secures access to the site for production of its treatments, even if Fujifilm brings on new clients. Among those are tab-cel, Atara's therapy for a disease associated with the Epstein-Barr virus that's under regulatory review in Europe, and a treatment for multiple sclerosis.
For Atara, the cash from sale of the site will add to the estimated $370 million in cash it held as of Dec. 31, 2021, while the transfer of 140 employees to Fujifilm will reduce its operating costs.
The deal comes close to a much anticipated milestone for Atara, which expects to soon disclose results from a mid-stage study of that multiple sclerosis treatment. Called ATA188, the cell therapy targets B cells and plasma cells that are infected by the Epstein-Barr virus, an approach based on the hypothesis that EBV infection drives the disease.
That hypothesis got a boost this month, first from a paper published in Science and then from research published in Nature.
Atara is planning for an interim analysis of data from its Phase 2 trial sometime in the second quarter.
Also on Wednesday, Atara announced the departure of its chief operations officer Joseph Newell, who will become a consultant for the company for the next two years.