Kite executives are back with a CAR-T startup, $300M and Pfizer drugs

Kite CAR-T manufacturing
Allogene Therapeutics is starting out with $300 million in series A funding, 16 preclinical CAR-T assets and one candidate slated to enter phase 2 in 2019. (Kite Pharma)

They created the first CAR-T for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and now they're working on the next chapter. Former Kite Pharma executives Arie Belldegrun and David Chang are helming Allogene Therapeutics, which starts life with a massive $300 million series A round and 17 off-the-shelf CAR-T assets licensed from Pfizer. 

Belldegrun, the former Kite CEO, will serve as executive chairman, while Chang, Kite's former R&D chief and CMO, will take the reins as CEO and president. 

Pfizer picked up the global rights to Cellectis' CAR-T assets in 2014. The Big Pharma coughed up $80 million up front, but with $185 million per product up for grabs, the deal could have been worth as much as $2.9 billion. Now, Allogene is on the hook for those milestones and royalties for each commercialized product, Cellectis said.

A year after the initial tie-up with Cellectis, Pfizer and Servier acquired the rights to another candidate, UCART19, an allogeneic CAR-T therapy being developed for CD19-expressing hematological malignancies. 

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UCART19 is the lead asset—Allogene and Servier plan to start phase 2 studies in 2019. The rest of the assets have not yet been tested in humans. 

RELATED: Growth-hungry Gilead finally pivots from flagging hep C with $12B Kite buy

Novartis' Kymriah and Kite/Gilead's Yescarta both scored FDA approval last year, becoming the first CAR-T therapies to hit the market. These treatments involve taking a patient's T cells, modifying them to better target and attack cancer cells, then reinfusing them back into the patient.

Because the treatment is taken from a patient's own cells, manufacturing can be complex and take a long time. Allogeneic's approach uses donor T cells, which can be stored and used "off the shelf."

“The allogeneic CAR-T platform represents a potentially transformative approach to treating cancer, and we are very excited about what the future may hold for this area of research,” said Robert Abraham, SVP and head of oncology R&D at Pfizer, in a release. “We believe that under the strong scientific, clinical development and regulatory expertise of Allogene’s leadership team, the portfolio of CAR-T assets contributed by Pfizer will be well-positioned to rapidly advance into potential innovative new therapies, and ultimately to reach patients in need more quickly.”  

“We believe CAR-T is one of the most exciting spaces within the pharmaceutical landscape today, and we are thrilled to partner with a best-in-class management team and industry leaders to invest in this potentially groundbreaking opportunity,” said Todd Sisitsky, managing partner at TPG Capital, in the statement. The firm participated in Allogene's series A, alongside Pfizer, BellCo Capital, the University of California Office of the Chief Investment Officer and Vida Ventures, a new life sciences VC firm launched Tuesday with $295 million. Belldegrun is one of Vida's founders. 

“The Vida Founders and their investors came together because we have a unified belief that great breakthroughs in medicine will only come to pass if supported by those willing to take calculated risks,” Belldegrun said in the statement. “Vida is structured to utilize dynamic access to funding that allows us to capitalize on a breadth of opportunities and take unconventional approaches to investing.”  

Cellectis was up 16% late morning on the news, as it looked to play up a new partner, rather than the loss of a Big Pharma, while Pfizer was marginally up by around half a percent. 

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