Novartis gains immune-cell cancer therapy in deal with University of Pennsylvania
by Jeffrey Bouley  |  Email the author


PHILADELPHIA—In an industry-academic alliance that aims to expand the used of personalized T cell therapy for cancer patients, the University of Pennsylvania and Novartis announced this week an exclusive global research and licensing agreement to study and commercialize novel cellular immunotherapies using chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) technologies.  
The effort to study these CAR therapies was already underway before the announcement; in fact, this agreement follows a Penn research team's 2011 publication of breakthrough results in several chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients treated with this personalized immunotherapy technique. But with this new alliance bolstering things, the parties say the way is now paved for pivotal studies that have the potential to expand the use of CAR therapies for additional cancers.  
Together, Novartis and Penn will establish a new research center to expedite study and development of gene transfer approach to disease treatment, which is said to be the first of its kind and will be dubbed the Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies (CACT). The center will be located on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, and it will be devoted to the discovery, development and manufacturing of adoptive T cell immunotherapies through a joint research and development program led by scientists and clinicians from Penn, Novartis, and the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research.  
Penn officials say this new alliance "represents a marquee achievement in Penn's commitment to translational science aimed at expediting the process of bringing novel therapies to patients" and they add that the venture will "bring full circle the 1960 discovery of the Philadelphia chromosome, the first description of a chromosome abnormality that causes cancer."  
"Penn's intellectual resources, combined with a pharmaceutical industry leader like Novartis, offer a powerful symbiotic relationship in our mutual goal of finding more effective treatments for cancer," said Dr. J. Larry Jameson, dean of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and executive vice president for the university's health system. "With our shared commitment to rapidly advancing new therapies and cures, this new alliance will provide the support for the essential clinical trials with engineered T cells, which could open doors for use of promising treatment options for many cancer patients who have reached the end of currently available treatments."  
Under the terms of the agreement, Penn grants Novartis an exclusive worldwide license to the technologies used in an ongoing trial of patients with CLL as well as future CAR-based therapies developed through the collaboration. Novartis will invest in the establishment of the CACT and future research of the technology. Additional milestone and royalty payments to Penn are also part of the agreement, but Novartis isn't offering up any details of the deal beyond that right now.
"Our early results in patients treated with chimeric antigen receptors represent two decades of investment and perseverance in our effort to treat cancer in an entirely new way, combining a highly targeted cell-based therapy with the might of a patient's own immune system," said Dr. Carl June, the leader of the 2011 Penn study of CARs and a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine as well as director of translational research at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center. "By joining forces with Novartis, we will now have the resources and space to expand our research in new directions that we hope will change the way cancers of all kinds are treated."
Although further studies are needed to explore the long-term viability of the treatment, June's team showed that in the patients studied so far, months after infusion, the new cells had multiplied throughout the patients' bodies and were capable of continuing their seek-and-destroy mission against cancerous cells.
In addition to continued trials in CLL, Penn has trials for engineered T cell underway for other leukemias, but also for lymphoma, mesothelioma, myeloma and neuroblastoma as well.  
According to Penn officials, two other companies also vied for this kind of alliance with the university, but Novartis won out in part because in its product portfolio is Gleevec, which is used to treat CLL. The university has not disclosed who the other two suitors were. Apparently, the university also garnered some interest from venture capitalists, but as June was quoted as saying by Bloomberg, partnering with an established company was far preferable to the hard and slow work involved in setting up a company for spin-out. 

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