- Bluebird bio on Monday said it has expanded a 2016 research partnership with German biotech Medigene, signaling greater interest in the development of T cell receptor (TCR)-based immunotherapies to complement its existing efforts around CAR-T technology.
- For both CAR-T and TCR therapies, patient immune cells are genetically reprogrammed ex vivo to better detect and attack cancer cells. TCR-based therapy, however, can be directed against targets on the inside and outside of cells rather than just antigens presented on surface of the cell.
- Under the revised deal, Medigene will be responsible for discovering TCRs for six antigens selected by Bluebird instead of four. In return, Bluebird will tack on another $500 million in potential payments contingent on the achievement of unspecific development and commercial milestones.
While Novartis and Gilead have led the way in the development of CAR-T therapeutics, Bluebird is one of several companies aiming to make its mark in a second wave of cell therapies.
The biotech, which is also developing gene therapies for beta-thalassemia and sickle cell disease, has made the most progress on a CAR-T candidate designed to treat multiple myeloma. Strong results in an early clinical study led Bluebird's development partner Celgene to push the experimental treatment into pivotal testing last year. If all goes according to plan, the two companies plan to co-market the treatment in the U.S.
That therapy, along with a related candidate also in development for multiple myeloma, so far represents the extent of Bluebird's clinical pipeline in oncology.
The revised deal with Medigene, however, is evidence of Bluebird's interest in finding more cancer candidates to take into the clinic.
"As we continue to build our leadership in immuno-oncology, we value Medigene's TCR technology platform which enables us to tackle intracellular tumor antigens not addressable by CAR Ts," said Philip Gregory, chief scientific officer at Bluebird, in a May 14 statement.
Under the original 2016 deal, Medigene stood to receive as much as $1 billion in milestones based on progress on four TCR projects. With the addition of two more projects to the partnership, Bluebird will pay Medigene $8 million upfront as a one-time fee and bump up the deal's potential value to $1.5 billion.
Medigene remains responsible for discovering TCR candidates capable of targeting antigens chosen by Bluebird, after which Bluebird will pick up responsibility for pre-clinical development on up.
While CAR-T remains the most advanced area in cancer cell therapy, interest in TCR-based approaches has grown. British pharma GlaxoSmithKline, as well as biotechs like Juno Therapeutics, Adaptimmune and others, have candidates in development.
Shares in Medigene rose by nearly 10% in Monday trading on the German stock exchange.