UPDATED: Cellectis files for $115M IPO as CAR-T tech sizzles

PARIS--Paris-based Cellectis has followed through with plans for an IPO in the U.S., filing Friday to raise $115 million in the hot American market as it pushes ahead on CAR-T research.

While Novartis ($NVS) and Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO) have seized the lead in the field with clinical-stage programs, Cellectis believes it can follow up quickly with a better approach--exchanging the personalized T cell attack that the leaders are mounting with adapted patient cells in exchange for off-the-shelf allogeneic therapies that can more easily be applied to a wider group of cancer patients.

"Our initial focus is on developing allogeneic treatments," Cellectis notes in its F-1, "and we believe that we are the leading company pursuing this approach."

CAR-T depends on a simple idea. T cells are equipped with targeting mechanisms called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), which seek out and bind to proteins expressed by cancer cells. After they have been adapted, the cells are injected into the patient, at which point they track down malignancies and attack them as they would any commonplace infection. 

The chance to get in on the ground floor of a second-gen CAR-T effort attracted Pfizer to the fold. The pharma giant signed on to partner with Cellectis, putting up $80 million in cash, offering R&D support and offering up to $2.8 billion in milestones for a full slate of cancer drug programs. And Pfizer came in last June, when Cellectis had only €20 million in cash reserves. Pfizer's support will be key for a company which has been spending about €17 million a year on research work.

But there are still some big challenges in the field, including controlling cytokine storms that can overwhelm certain patients. Cellectis in particular has some big challenges ahead. Its allogeneic strategy relies on new gene editing tech that will depend heavily on its successful use of nucleases to modify DNA. It's been tried in animals, but not yet humans. The promise of this approach, though, has captivated the public markets, leading to a stellar IPO for Juno and others. And now Cellectis wants to follow that path toward banking a considerable stockpile of cash.

Pfizer came away with close to 10% of the equity in the company when it bought in last summer, but Bpifrance has a 10.3% stake and Pierre Bastid owns 11.2%. CEO Andre Choulika, who has run the company for 15 years, owns 3.3% of the stock. 

There's a significant amount of competition in the field, as Cellectis makes clear in its filing. They are:

  • In the gene-editing space: CRISPR Therapeutics, Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics, Precision BioSciences and Sangamo BioSciences.
  • In the CAR space: Bellicum Pharmaceuticals, Celgene (in collaboration with bluebird bio), Intrexon, Kite Pharma and Novartis.
  • In the cell-therapy space: Adaptimmune, Juno, Lion Biotechnologies and Unum Therapeutics.

The biotech IPO market is now in its third year and has been showing signs of slowing recently. Cellectis will now test whether investors' appetite for CAR-T has been sated or if there's more room for a player in one of the hottest fields in the sector.

- here's the F-1

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