Powerhouse biotech startup charges into legal wrangle over pioneering immunotherapy

When Juno Therapeutics launched a month ago, the biotech rocketed off the launch pad with $120 million in cash, an experienced CEO at the helm and a trio of the world's top research institutions behind its move to revolutionize leukemia treatment with a potentially game-changing immunotherapy.

Now it also has a big lawsuit to prosecute that features the two leading rivals in chimeric antigen receptor--or CAR--therapies.

St. Jude Children's Research Center in Memphis fired the first shot in the legal confrontation, claiming that the University of Pennsylvania's Carl June had improperly trespassed on their intellectual property rights for CAR. And the university quickly fired back, saying that St. Jude was improperly interfering with their contract rights, asserting control over technology that was at the heart of a $20 million deal by industry powerhouse Novartis.

Seattle-based Juno, which licensed tech from St. Jude, now says it will take the lead role in the legal showdown as the rival parties square off over ownership of one of the most exciting new fields in cancer drug research, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer. And the winner could wind up as the lead player in a blockbuster franchise.

A few weeks ago at ASH, Novartis ($NVS) helped illustrate what all of the fuss is about. In a clinical study a total of 19 of 22 pediatric patients with lethal cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia experienced complete remissions after being treated with the CAR T therapy, CTL019, a T cell engineered to target cancer cells that express the CD19 protein. Five of those patients later relapsed, though one had developed tumors that did not express CD19. And the first patient treated in that study is still in remission after 20 months. Among 32 adult patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, 7 experienced a complete remission and 15 responded to the therapy.

IP disputes around potential breakthrough therapies are fairly standard in the industry. Medivation ($MDVN) sued UCLA over the rights to a successor to its cancer drug. Gilead Sciences ($GILD) has been defending Sovaldi. Typically there's no fundamental change in control of a project. The Inquirer also notes that St. Jude and Penn are continuing to collaborate on a study that could be more important than their IP suit. Investigators have set out to determine which of the two have the best technology.

But that's one argument that might have to wait for late-stage data to settle once and for all.

- here's the article from the Philadelphia Inquirer