Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO) has joined the scrum of companies pursuing the multiple myeloma target B-cell maturation antigen (BCMA). The immuno-oncology pioneer jumped into the field through a licensing deal with Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center and Eureka Therapeutics, putting it on turf occupied by firms including bluebird bio ($BLUE), Novartis ($NVS) and Cellectis ($CLLS).
Through the deal with MSK and Eureka, Juno now has the rights to a fully human binding domain against BCMA. The plan is to use this domain as the basis of a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) cell therapy against BCMA. If everything goes according to plan, Juno will have the candidate in the clinic in the first half of next year, putting it in the slipstream of CARs from familiar rivals--and allies--in the immuno-oncology sector.
Earlier this year, bluebird advanced its CAR-BCMA into the clinic, prompting Celgene ($CELG) to take up its option to license the drug. Celgene also has a significant relationship with Juno, but in BCMA it has thrown its lot in the bluebird. As a multiple myeloma target, BCMA represents a key battleground for Celgene.
Bluebird and Celgene are joined in the clinic by Novartis, which has a CAR-BCMA from its collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania. NCI’s James Kochenderfer also has a CAR-BCMA in the clinic. Kochenderfer is known for his links to Kite Pharma ($KITE), but the BCMA CAR project isn’t covered by that relationship.
Pfizer ($PFE) partner and off-the-shelf CAR pioneer Cellectis ($CLLS) has a BCMA-targeted product in preclinical testing, while other companies are going after BCMA with different types of drugs. Notably, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has an antibody-drug conjugate, GSK2857916, in the clinic.
The upshot of all this activity is that Juno is wading into a busy niche already occupied by companies with more advanced products. BCMA has attracted such interest because its RNA is nearly always found in multiple myeloma cells. And the protein is seen on the surface of malignant plasma cells taken from multiple myeloma patients. Both factors suggest BCMA is a target worth pursuing.
For Juno, the question is whether the technology it has in-licensed can differentiate its product in a busy field. The answer to this question lies in the clinic and beyond, but Juno has seen enough in the MSK technology to warrant committing some of its $1.1 billion cash reserve to BCMA.
“In the due diligence that was conducted prior to going forward in the deal, we did a pretty extensive comparison and there are some striking differences in terms of potencies of the binders as measured in in vitro assays and an in vivo,” Juno CSO Hyam Levitsky said on a conference call with investors. “And then there are some other biophysical properties that we're quite intrigued by.”
Levitsky made the comments on a call that discussed the fallout from the brief clinical hold the FDA placed on Juno’s trial last month. While the hold lasted a matter of days, its impact is more significant. Juno has pushed back the anticipated approval of JCAR015 from 2017 to 2018.