GSK adds Miltenyi Biotec to its oncology shopping CAR-T as Witty checks out

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Miltenyi Biotec have signed an R&D cell and gene therapy pact that will see the British Big Pharma delve deeper into the brave new world of CAR-T-based oncology treatments. This brave new world will not however feature its leader, Andrew Witty, who announced his retirement today.

GSK CEO Andrew Witty

Financial details between GSK and the German biotech have not been disclosed, but the companies said the collaboration will bring together GSK's experience in developing cell and gene therapy-based treatments with Miltenyi Biotec's platform in cell processing and related technologies in cell therapy.

GSK said it wants to use the deal to help optimize the manufacturing process associated with this complex therapy by using increased automation and leading-edge processing technology. This also includes creating increased automation to further industrialize cell and gene therapy, overcoming the manufacturing and scale-up constraints associated with current, more manual cell and gene therapy processes. 

The main research focus of the partnership is to advance the discovery of new CAR (chimeric antigen-receptor) T-cell based therapeutics.

These are cells that have been engineered to target and destroy cancer cells by strengthening a patient's natural T-cell response. It's one of the hottest tickets in biotech right now, with Pfizer ($PFE), Novartis ($NVS), Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO), Kite Pharma ($KITE) and many others all seeking to get in on the new therapy area.

Currently, there have been some stellar trial results with blood cancers but some of the early excitement around CAR-T has worn off as none of the above companies has yet managed to chart a strong signal of efficacy in solid tumors.

GSK and Miltenyi Biotec said they will work on as yet undisclosed CAR-T oncology targets as well as the creating new technologies. The deal builds on GSK's current preclinical CAR-T pipeline.

Patrick Vallance, president of pharmaceuticals R&D at GSK, said: "Cell-based gene therapies are living treatments, unique to individual patients and complex to manufacture. We see tremendous potential for the cell and gene therapy platform we are building within GSK, however the complexity of current manufacturing processes limits their use to local treatment of small patient populations.

"Working with Miltenyi Biotec, our vision is to transform current technology so that we can expand the possibilities for cell and gene therapy treatment to wider patient populations with broader geographical reach."

This builds on the ongoing and recently updated deal with Philadelphia-based biotech Adaptimmune ($ADAP) and its T-cell receptor (or TRC) for certain oncology targets. Similar to the CAR-T therapies, TCR treatments are designed to school a patient's T cells to seek out specific antigens expressed by tumors.

GSK sold much of its advanced cancer drug portfolio to Novartis last year in an asset swap worth around $20 billion, but kept hold of some early-stage oncology drugs in order to build up a new pipeline in the next decade.

The fruition of this deal and the asset swap will however not be overseen by GSK's long-standing CEO Witty, who today announced he will be retiring in March 2017. 

His departure has long been known given that the firm's chairman Philip Hampton spoke last year of finding a successor. Witty, a 31-year veteran of the London-based company, has come under increasing pressure over the past three year given a major scandal in China which spread around the world; poor financial results nearly every quarter stretching back to 2013; and questions over the future direction of the firm.

Some investors have pushed for GSK to be broken up, akin to what Pfizer did a few years ago, and focus more heavily on its prescription drug business and the kind of deals being made with Miltenyi Biotec and Adaptimmune. 

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