Celgene strikes Obsidian deal to boost CAR-T options 

Celgene is pushing ahead with its immuno-oncology dealmaking program while working toward its $74 billion takeout by Bristol-Myers Squibb. The big biotech ended the week by expanding its CAR-T toolkit via a deal with Obsidian Therapeutics and placing an $80 million bet on Kyn Therapeutics.

Maintaining its reputation for early-stage involvement to the end, Celgene has become Obsidian’s first major partner through a deal that gives it the option to license cell therapies. Obsidian, which emerged in 2017 with a $49.5 million series A, has spent the past few years working on cell therapy technologies, including mechanisms for modulating the activity of IL12 and CD40L.

Obsidian thinks the immunomodulatory factors can enhance adoptive cell therapies but only if they are closely controlled. To achieve such control, Obsidian has designed small, fully human protein domains that facilitate regulation of the expression of transduced genes by small molecules.

Other companies are also working on technologies to control the power of cell therapies and thereby improve the risk-benefit profile of the hard-to-harness modality. Despite the competition, Obsidian has managed to stand out to Celgene, enabling it to land a deal with the big biotech.

Celgene is paying an upfront fee of undisclosed size and taking a stake in Obsidian in exchange for the option to license cell therapies that use the startup’s technology to control the activity of IL12 and CD40L. The deal also features milestones and royalties tied to the progress of the multiyear pact.

Robert Hershberg, executive vice president of business development at Celgene, thinks the technology can expand use of cell therapies into solid tumors, describing it as “a prime example of the new technologies that we see enabling broader applications for CAR-T and cell therapies for the treatment of cancer" in a statement disclosing the deal.

If the technology delivers on those expectations, it could help Celgene build on the platform it gained through the Juno Therapeutics takeover and carve out a piece of the cell therapy field despite falling behind the leading pack.

News of the Obsidian deal emerged at the same time as details of another immuno-oncology pact involving Celgene. The second deal gives Celgene the option to license an aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) antagonist and a kynurenine-degrading enzyme program in development at Kyn. Celgene is paying $80 million upfront and taking a stake in Kyn as part of the deal.

Kyn landed the deal on the strength of early evidence that targeting AHR and kynurenine can render tumors vulnerable to attack by affecting their protective immunosuppressive microenvironments. The startup, which raised a $49 million series A round in 2017, thinks the targets could be particularly useful in the treatment of patients who have suboptimal responses to checkpoint inhibitors.