UPDATED: PACT Pharma to cull lead asset, divert 54 employees to new business development venture

More than a month after PACT Pharma disclosed it would be laying off 94 employees, the company will instead be diverting more than half of those employees towards a new unnamed business development venture, according to CEO Scott Garland. Concurrent with the staffing shakeup, PACT is axing its lead program and refocusing its neoantigen-focused pipeline. 

In an interview, Garland said the company is not laying off 51 additional employees, as was first reported by Fierce Biotech. Instead, those employees' jobs at PACT are being extended by one month, until the end of September, and will subsequently be diverted to a new business development venture. Additionally, the company incorrectly listed 51 affected employees in the California Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) system when it will ultimately affect 54. 

The believed layoffs were identified in the latest WARN report, which disclosed them as if they were new. Upon finding the report, Fierce Biotech reached the company's listed press contact who said they no longer worked for the company. Emails to Atulya Agarwal, PACT's chief legal and business strategy officer, bounced back and phone calls to his office could not be completed because the number was unavailable. It turns out that the company incorrectly listed Agarwal's email on three separate press releases and clarified he still works there, Garland explained. 

PACT also suspended its lone clinical trial, a phase 1 test for NeoTCR-P1 on August 18 due to a "business decision", according to the clinical trial record. The company had been studying its lone neoantigen-based autologous T-cell therapy as a single treatment for a variety of cancers in addition to seeing if it fit as a combo therapy with Bristol Myers Squibb’s blockbuster checkpoint inhibitor Opdivo. Garland says the company is instead focusing on "shared neoantigens" with a new asset that's not yet reflected in the company's pipeline but slated to enter the clinic in the first half of 2023.

"We will actually be initiating a clinical program in 2023, but those targets are not listed on our website right now," he said.

The company launched in 2017 to develop a slate of personalized cancer therapies that capitalize on unique “neoantigens” that are displayed on a patient's tumors. The company then uses its platform to design T cells targeted toward these neoantigens, hoping that the specificity of the treatment will result in robust responses.

Now, the focus will be on neoantigens that are not quite as unique to individual patients. Examples Garland gave of potential shared neoantigens are KRAS and P53. 

The company's preclinical asset, NeoTCR-P201, is sticking around but now will similarly focus on shared neoantigens. P201, which will soon have a new name, was intended to be a version 2.0 of the personalized T-cell therapy that would include gene edits to make the therapy even more precise. It will continue to maintain the gene-editing aspect but will apply the technology to shared neoantigens. 

PACT raised $75 million in an oversubscribed series C in January 2020 led by Vida Ventures. The company said at the time that the proceeds would be used to broaden its clinical plans in addition to helping fund in-house manufacturing capabilities. 

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:15 p.m. ET to correct the number of total affected employees and with additional editorial from an interview with PACT Pharma CEO Scott Garland.