Novartis' Kymriah head jumps ship to T-cell biotech Atara as its R&D chief quits

Atara Biotherapeutics is posting updated data for its CAR T-cell immunotherapy at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting next week. (La Jolla Institute)

Novartis has lost its head of oncology and lead for its global head, cell and gene therapy unit Pascal Touchon as he steps up to become CEO and president of California biotech Atara Biotherapeutics.

This almost directly echoes the departure of Usman "Oz" Azam, who a few years back left Novartis to helm a T-cell biotech—in this case, Tmunity—also leaving his position as the Swiss Big Pharma’s cell and gene therapy unit lead.

Buried at the end of the release was the news that Dietmar Berger, Atara’s global head of R&D, has resigned from the company. No further details were given except to say he has gone off to “pursue other opportunities.”

Berger, a Roche/Genentech veteran, only became the biotech's global head of R&D a year ago. Analysts at Mizuho biotech said it “seems like [a] majority of investors felt he [Berger] wanted to be CEO, is now leaving as a result of not getting the job.” In fact, we later learned that Berger had got the job as head of development at Sanofi.

Touchon, who helped lead the launch of Novartis’ blood cancer CAR T-cell therapy Kymriah, swaps a $220 billion market cap Big Pharma for a $1 billion market cap biotech that is working on off-the-shelf, allogeneic T-cell immunotherapies in cancer—hoping to rival and beat older CAR-T therapies like Novartis'—as well as targeting autoimmune and viral diseases including multiple sclerosis and Epstein-Barr virus, a treatment for the latter of which is in the later stages of testing.

He takes over from founder Isaac Ciechanover, M.D., who has immediately stepped down as its leader and now becomes a special adviser to a subcommittee of the biotech’s board. This group will lead the biotech until Touchon starts his tenure at the end of June. Ciechanover announced that he would be leaving at the start of the year.

RELATED: Tmunity nabs $100M for next-gen T-cell immunotherapies

“We are delighted that Pascal Touchon will be Atara’s next chief executive officer,” said Carol Gallagher, Atara’s lead independent director.

“His proven oncology leadership as well as CAR-T development and global commercialization experience make him an ideal choice to lead Atara. We are confident that Pascal’s capability to unite cell and gene immunotherapy teams will help to guide strategy and execution in the years ahead and enable Atara to further realize its mission to transform the lives of patients with serious diseases.”

Atara spun out of Amgen back in 2012 and made a kidney disease candidate its top priority shortly thereafter. That plan went awry in 2015 when the kidney candidate flunked a midphase study, forcing Atara to shift gears and step up its focus on oncology.

RELATED: AACR: After blood cancer successes, CAR-T treatments see inroads for solid cancers

This strategy is currently centered on its next-generation CAR-T offering, which is being developed with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. A few months back, they presented new early-stage data showing it could help in solid tumors, specifically in a form of lung cancer caused by asbestos.

Researchers found a 72% response rate in a subset of patients treated with the mesothelin-targeted CAR-T and are posting some updated results next week at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting.