MD Anderson adds Cellectis to a crush of immunotherapy collaborations

Cellectis CEO André Choulika

The MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston is becoming the preferred partner of choice among a growing group of immuno-oncology players looking to develop a new generation of drugs. This afternoon it was Cellectis' ($CLLS) turn to join the migration south, sayings its researchers in New York will be working with some of the top experts at MD Anderson as the biotech advances a group of off-the-shelf CAR-T cell therapies.

This particular partnership arrives as Cellectis is setting up studies for new drugs aimed at leukemia and myeloma. And while it's a few clinical steps behind leaders like Novartis ($NVS), Juno ($JUNO) and Kite ($KITE), the biotech and its allies at MD Anderson believe they can close the gap quickly.

"This alliance could potentially drive to 5 clinical developments within a time horizon of 3 years," says Mathieu Simon, the COO at Paris-based Cellectis. 

Hagop Kantarjian and Robert Orlowski will direct this new alliance for MD Anderson, which spent $735 million on research in its last fiscal year--in line with a substantial biotech R&D budget.

The pioneers in this field aligned themselves with institutions like the University of Pennsylvania (Novartis), Memorial Sloan Kettering (Juno) and the NCI (Kite), but MD Anderson has demonstrated a voracious appetite for a wide range of oncology partnerships. Just days ago it partnered with Immatics on a $60 million immuno-oncology spinout. That followed fast on the heels of a pact with Merck ($MRK) to run a slate of combination studies on their checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda. There are also deals in place with a Ziopharm/Intrexon collaboration and others, which follow MD Anderson's move to recruit top cancer investigators like Jim Allison, of Yervoy fame, who's set up a series of "moon shot" programs with industry partners.

Cellectis CEO André Choulika, who pulled off a successful IPO recently, has been an outspoken critic of the front runners in CAR-T. Their personalized therapies will be eclipsed by a more efficient set of therapies that can be manufactured without the use of a patients' T cells, he asserts. And Choulika believes that Cellectis has the best gene editing tech and the biggest expectations to meet.

He just hasn't tested it in humans yet.

"Cellectis is the first company doing CAR-T," the CEO told FierceBiotech during an interview at ASCO. "We are the first gene editing company in the world," dating back to 1999. "There was no gene editing before us; we are the leaders."

- here's the release