- Gilead Sciences Inc. will pay $175 million upfront and potentially as much as $567 million to acquire California-based Cell Design Labs Inc., deepening its commitment to cancer cell therapy only three months after splashing out to buy Kite Pharma and its CAR-T treatment Yescarta for $11.9 billion.
- Cell Design Labs is only in the pre-clinical stage, but has developed two technology platforms — a system to engineer CAR-T cells to target two antigens and an "on" switch to modulate CAR-T activity — that Gilead believes could improve the safety and selectivity of CAR-T treatment.
- "This acquisition demonstrates our deep commitment to continuing to invest in future innovation in the field of cellular therapy, both internally and externally," said Gilead CEO John Milligan in a Dec. 7 statement. Milligan has indicated he believes cell therapy will become the "cornerstone" of treating cancer in the years to come.
When Gilead acquired Kite, executives made clear they expected to invest further in cell therapy.
"We are quite interested in bringing in technology that will enhance our ability to move CAR-T forward to the next generations of CAR-T," Milligan said on a conference call with analysts back in late October.
So the deal for Cell Design should come as no surprise. Still, the speed at which Gilead moved to build on its acquisition of Kite speaks to the company's commitment to making cell therapy its next major franchise.
Cell Design is a logical next step. According to Gilead, the company specializes in cell engineering, having developed two technology platforms that can be used to alter how modified T cells behave in the body.
One, called synNotch, enables researchers to engineer CAR-T cells that need to recognize two targets before activating. Currently, Gilead and Novartis AG's rival CAR-T Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel) only hone in on one target, called CD19, that is commonly expressed by B-cell malignancies.
As CAR-T has evolved, scientists have begun to look at antigens other than CD19 to improve or broaden CAR-T's potential in different cancers.
Cell Design's other platform, dubbed "Throttle," is a type of "on switch" that can modulate the activity of CAR-Ts using small molecules — potentially offering a way to improve the safety of the cell therapies.
Gilead believes the two platforms could help expand its R&D efforts into new blood cancers or even solid tumors.
Under deal terms, Gilead will acquire all outstanding shares of Cell Design Labs, including the roughly 12% stake Kite held in the company. Cell Design will receive $175 million upfront, with the potential for another $322 million payable to shareholders in the company other than Kite if certain milestones are met.
In addition to its engineering technologies, Cell Design also has several pre-clinical candidates in development for multiple myeloma, prostate cancer and hepatocellular carcinoma.