David Epstein: Industry should 'remain optimistic' on cell and gene therapy after Novartis cull

David Epstein says that despite Novartis ($NVS) scaling back on its gene and cell therapy work, the industry should still be positive about the medical impact it can have, while he tells FierceBiotech that he is now “starting to consider biopharma options” for his next role.

Epstein and former head of Novartis Oncology Hervé Hoppenot were pivotal in championing and nurturing the gene and cell therapy unit for the Swiss major. But after both men left the company (Hoppenot became the CEO of Incyte in 2014 while Epstein unexpectedly left a few months back), Novartis announced that it was to make major cuts to its internal unit dedicated to cell and gene therapy.

It said two weeks ago that it will redeploy most of those 400 employees from the unit, but around 120 are set for the ax, according to reports. The move comes only two years after the unit was formally created.

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Novartis now wants to focus on playing catch-up in the immuno-oncology market, currently led by checkpoint inhibitors from Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), Merck ($MRK) and most recently Roche ($RHHBY), but this has come at the expense of its other programs.

There have been reports that the cull was in the works for around 6 months, but an official statement only came from the Big Pharma in late August.

Epstein, who for 6 years headed up Novartis Pharmaceuticals, had a shock departure from the company in May as it rejigged its business setup and sought a standalone unit for its oncology efforts and separate from its pharmaceuticals division, a decision that left Epstein out of a role.

He tells me that, of course, he is “not in the know any longer what happens there [at Novartis],” but explains: “I think you know that Hervé Hoppenot and I started that effort [in gene and cell therapy] with the in-license deal with Penn [on CAR-T programs] and quickly thereafter the purchase of the unused Dendreon manufacturing facility in Morris Plains.

“When Oz Azam became head of the [cell and gene therapies] unit he really got it moving forward. I am a believer in cell therapy. These products will most certainly save lives. Based upon what I have seen I recommend the industry remain optimistic.”

Some news reports have suggested that Azam may too be out the door of Novartis soon, meaning the three men that originally sought to push cell and gene therapies up the R&D ladder for the company could all be gone by the year’s end. This begs the question as to just how committed Novartis has been to these programs, and how long the decision to cut back has been in place.

Epstein though is looking forward. “After the very short break from Novartis I am now starting to consider biopharma options,” he tells me. “I have been positively impressed by the range of possibilities to do something meaningful at the edge of medical science and life improving/extending commercialization. May take a while (some time off is also fun) but stay tuned.”

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