Celgene opts in as bluebird starts first CAR-T clinical trial

Bluebird bio ($BLUE) has launched its first clinical study of its CAR-T therapy bb2121 for multiple myeloma. And Celgene ($CELG) has jumped in alongside, following up on its option for an exclusive license and handing over a $10 million payment to secure the deal.

Celgene and bluebird narrowed a once broad-based collaboration to focus on the CAR-T program, which analysts applauded as a sensible move by Celgene to defend its multiple myeloma franchise. For bluebird, the study also offers a shot at demonstrating its gene editing skills, which it's been honing with the help of scientists at Baylor.

Late last year the NCI's James Kochenderfer attracted considerable attention with some selective early data on the program, which adds a B-cell maturation antigen (BCMA)-chimeric antigen receptor to patients' T cells. One well advanced cancer patient with multiple myeloma experienced a complete remission two months after treatment with CAR-BCMA.

"BCMA is one of the most exciting targets in multiple myeloma, and we are eager to explore the potential of bb2121 to become an important new treatment option for patients living with multiple myeloma," Kochenderfer said in a statement.

The two collaborators are by no means alone in going after a CAR-T for myeloma, reengineering T cells to equip them with receptors that make them into cancer cell hunters. But analysts like their chances.

"While several other groups have been working on myeloma CAR-T programs, anti-BCMA CAR-T data from BLUE's collaborator at the NCI presented as late-breaker at ASH, 2015 has been most promising do date in our view," noted Leerink's Michael Schmidt. "Reiterating our OP rating since we believe investor expectations on BLUE's gene therapy pipeline are now more reasonable and BLUE is well positioned (and capitalized) to overcome the remaining technical hurdles. Next up is an interim update from BLUE's Lenti-D Phase II/III trial at the upcoming AAN conference (April 15-21)."

Bluebird's shares jumped 8% on the news Wednesday.

- here's the release