Baxalta dives into CAR-T with a $1.6B bet

Baxalta Oncology President David Meek

Baxalta ($BXLT), soon to merge with Shire ($SHPG), is wading into the world of re-engineering T cells to fight cancer, signing a deal worth up to $1.6 billion to get its hands on some potential immunotherapies.

Under an agreement with North Carolina's Precision BioSciences, Baxalta is paying $105 million up front to collaborate on 6 so-called CAR-T projects, which take the immune system's natural weapons and re-outfit them to home in on cancer antigens. Precision BioSciences is responsible for early-stage development in the collaboration, and Baxalta has the right to opt in once each therapy reaches Phase II, the companies said.

Precision BioSciences is due as much as $1.6 billion more in option fees and milestones, per the agreement, and the company has the option to split costs and profits 50-50 on any CAR-T therapy licensed by Baxalta in the U.S.

Novartis ($NVS), Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO) and Kite Pharma ($KITE) have blazed a trial in the CAR-T space over the last few years, generating stellar results in rare blood cancers by using patients' own T cells to treat disease. But such a personalized approach could present scaling problems as these therapies get closer to market, according to Baxalta. By contrast, Precision BioSciences' approach to CAR-T relies on T cells from healthy donors, which Baxalta believes will allow for easier development and manufacturing.

"Combining Precision BioSciences' ARCUS technology with Baxalta's global infrastructure, expertise and growing immuno-oncology portfolio is a synergistic approach that we believe has the potential to make disruptive approaches available to people with a range of underserved cancers," Baxalta Oncology President David Meek said in a statement.

The two companies plan to get their first CAR-T collaboration into the clinic next year, declining to disclose which cancer antigens they intend to pursue.

Meanwhile, Baxalta is on the verge of joining Shire in a $32 billion merger agreement expected to close this summer. Allured by Baxalta's stable of hemophilia treatments, Shire claims the deal will transform it into the world's largest maker of treatments for rare diseases and help it grow revenue to $20 billion by 2020.

Precision BioSciences spun out of Duke University in 2006 and closed a $25 million A round last year.

- read the statement