Kite swoops in to buy Carl June-founded Tmunity, gaining key to Penn's CAR-T research apparatus

Gilead Sciences-owned cell therapy leader Kite Pharma is widening its roster through acquisition, acquiring Carl June-founded Tmunity and its suite of autologous CAR-T therapies born out of the University of Pennsylvania labs.

With at least half a dozen potential therapies from Tmunity, the purchase more than doubles Kite Pharma’s pipeline, which has been predominantly focused on expanding the use of its already-approved cell therapies Yescarta and Tecartus. Tantalizing Kite was Tmunity’s CAR-T platform, which has been designed to further refine patients' modulated cells to be more durable and more effective, as well as an expansive research deal with Penn. 

The two companies wouldn’t disclose how much the acquisition cost or financial details regarding the Penn collaboration. However, they did disclose that the university pact has been extended to at least 2026 with Kite looking at up to 20 targets stemming from Penn research. In an interview with Fierce Biotech, June, M.D.—director of Penn's Center for Cellular Immunotherapies—and Kite CEO Christi Shaw underscored the value in adding Penn as a partner, namely the breadth of investigator-sponsored trials and manufacturing access. 

“[T]his deal helps us really look to get our manufacturing from the current seven-day timeframe down to a much fewer number of days,” said Shaw, adding that the ultimate goal is to cut CAR-T manufacturing down to two to three days. 

Left excluded from the deal was one Tmunity asset linked to deadly toxicity levels in two patients disclosed by the company in June 2021. The two individuals died from high neurotoxicity in a trial testing the company’s PSMA-specific, TGFβ-resistant cell therapy to treat prostate cancer. That therapy, along with Tmunity’s prostate stem cell antigen therapy, will be spun out of the company. Tmunity has since tweaked the therapy, amending the signaling pathway that is targeted, thus spawning fewer cytokines, June told Fierce.

All told, Kite lands some seven programs from Tmunity, with at least four listed in studies posted on the federal clinical trial registry. One of these was just disclosed last week, testing a CAR-T in collaboration with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to treat neuroblastoma patients. The trial is slated to begin at the end of January 2023. 

The autologous-focused announcement comes a day after the first allogeneic or "off-the-shelf" T-cell therapy received regulatory approval in Europe to treat a subset of patients with post-transplant lymphoproliferative disease.

Shaw said that in the near to mid-future, Kite’s clinical priority is not deviating, citing durability concerns among allogeneic counterparts. “I don't see allo[geneic] replacing autologous anytime soon,” the CEO said.

June added that advancements in autologous manufacturing have improved their feasibility, weakening a key allogeneic selling point. 

With Kite’s pipeline growing so substantially, Shaw was noncommittal about keeping every newly-acquired asset. The Gilead unit will collaborate with June and fellow founders Bruce Levine, Ph.D., James Riley, Ph.D., and Anne Chew, Ph.D., to prioritize work after the deal closes, sometime in mid-2023, she said. All four founders will become senior scientific advisers once the deal is complete.