AstraZeneca forges deeper into cell therapies with $200M takeover of solid tumor TCR biotech

AstraZeneca is stepping up its pitch for a slice of the cell therapy space, paying $200 million upfront for a solid tumor player that recently hustled an autologous, fully individualized, multispecific prospect into the clinic.

The biotech, Neogene Therapeutics, is part of a clutch of companies that see T-cell receptor therapies (TCR-Ts) as the key to expanding the modality into solid tumors. Using its neoantigen TCR discovery and T-cell engineering platform, Neogene aims to find neoantigens, plus TCRs that target them, for each patient and then create T cells with the neoantigen-specific TCRs.

Neogene’s lead candidate, NT-125, is designed to contain up to five distinct neoantigen-specific TCRs per patient in a single cell product. The approach could, in theory, cut the risk of antigen escape and trigger deep, durable clinical responses.  

The biotech is also working on TCR-Ts targeting shared neoantigens, including mutated KRAS and mutated TP53. The company licensed a portfolio of TCRs targeting KRAS and TP53 mutations from the National Cancer Institute at the start of the year. Some of these candidates are "close to the clinic," AstraZeneca's executive vice president of oncology R&D Susan Galbraith, Ph.D., told Fierce Biotech in an interview.

But rather than the specific assets, AstraZeneca is most enthused by Neogene's platform and how it fits into the Big Pharma's recent attempts to move into the CAR-T space. "What Neogene bring is this T-cell receptor screening capability which they've developed," Galbraith said. "We put that together with what we're able to build and, of course, the global scale that we can bring—I think that produces a complementary capability overall, which we're excited about."

The company is backing up its warm words with cold cash. In return for $200 million upfront, plus up to $120 million in future paydays, the Big Pharma will take control of Neogene’s TCR-T pipeline and operations in Amsterdam and California. The biotech will operate as a subsidiary of AstraZeneca. 

The deal comes early in the validation of the technology. Neogene only disclosed the authorization to take its lead program into phase 1 in May, suggesting some limited clinical data may be available, but key questions about the pipeline and platform remain unanswered. 

Targeting solid tumors is a key goal of many players in the cell therapy space, and Galbraith said Neogene's platform offers another avenue to reach this destination in addition to CAR-Ts. "If you're going to bring cell therapy effectively to a large number of patients with solid tumors, then you really need this TCR-based capability to complement the cell surface-targeted therapies," she said.

Having built a growing commercial oncology portfolio around products such as Enhertu, Lynparza and Tagrisso, AstraZeneca has decided the early-phase bet on a novel technology has a favorable risk-reward profile. The calculation is potentially informed by the credentials of the people behind Neogene, which was founded by Carsten Linnemann, Ph.D., and Ton Schumacher, Ph.D.

The pair previously teamed up to establish T-Cell Factory, a startup Kite Pharma acquired in 2015. And, when they came to set up Neogene, they leveraged their connections to Kite and brought Arie Belldegrun, M.D., on board. Belldegrun’s Vida Ventures was among the VC shops that powered Neogene to its $110 million series A round in 2020. 

"With the history of many of the team at Neogene coming from the Kite background, they've also got manufacturing capability, which we're excited about because then we think that can accelerate our own programs as well," Galbraith said. "It's about the quality of their science and the quality of their team."