Pfizer snags U.S. rights to Cellectis' white-hot CAR-T therapy

Pfizer ($PFE) has picked up the U.S. rights to Cellectis' ($CLLS) closely watched CAR-T asset UCART19. But while Pfizer and Cellectis are working together directly on other immuno-oncology programs, the transfer of the rights to UCART19 was facilitated by a third party: Servier.

Paris, France-based Cellectis gave its compatriot an option to pick up the rights to UCART19 early in 2014, at which time the asset was still a minor player in the fast-emerging immuno-oncology sector. Servier was expected to exercise its option on the drug following the publication of Phase I data. But with Cellectis posting an encouraging report earlier this month after one infant was given UCART19 on a compassionate-use basis, Servier has decided to pull the trigger before the early-phase trial has even started.

Servier paid Cellectis $38.2 million upfront--and committed to up to $300 million in milestones--for the global rights to the program, before quickly flipping the U.S. rights to Pfizer. Servier and Pfizer will now split the cost and workload of the clinical trial program. The financial terms of the deal between Servier and Pfizer are private, leaving the question of how much money the middleman is making--and therefore how much more Cellectis could have received--unanswered. Seven weeks before it signed the original deal with Servier, Cellectis had €7.5 million ($8 million) cash.

The deal frees Cellectis up to work on the rest of its pipeline of allogeneic CAR-T therapies--some of which are aimed at less crowded targets than CD19--and gives Servier and Pfizer a shot at bringing the off-the-shelf treatment to market. UCART19 is lagging behind other CD19-targeting therapies in development, but as an off-the-shelf treatment it could have an edge if it ever finds itself fighting for market share against autologous drugs currently in development at Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO), Kite Pharma ($KITE) and Novartis ($NVS).

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