Bluebird widens its CAR-T ambitions with a $130M Five Prime deal

Five Prime CEO Lewis Williams

Bluebird bio ($BLUE), already making headlines with its promising gene therapy, is expanding its efforts in immuno-oncology, pairing up with Five Prime Therapeutics ($FPRX) to develop cell therapies for cancer.

Under the deal, bluebird is trading $1.5 million up front for the rights to some Five Prime antibodies that block an undisclosed, cancer-related target. With the antibodies, bluebird will apply its in-house gene therapy technology to engineer so-called CAR-T treatments, crafted by removing a patients' own T cells and rewiring them to home in on cancers. Five Prime is due up to $130 million more tied to development, regulatory and commercial milestones, and the biotech is eligible for royalties if bluebird's efforts hit the market.

The deal, however small, demonstrates bluebird's widening focus. Beyond its lead gene therapy programs in the rare cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy and beta-thalassemia major, the biotech is at work on an early-stage CAR-T project with partner Celgene ($CELG) and a handful of preclinical assets in the gene editing space. Now, recruiting Five Prime allows bluebird to further accelerate its in-house efforts as it works to make its name as an innovator in some of biotech's hottest spaces.

Bluebird has seen its market value soar over the past year as LentiGlobin, its potential cure for beta-thalassemia major, has performed well in a pair of small, ongoing studies. The biotech has identified a path toward approval in the U.S. and Europe for the treatment's lead indication and recently posted promising early data suggesting LentiGlobin could functionally cure the more common sickle cell disease as well.

As for Five Prime, bluebird's interest serves as an affirmation of the company's antibody platform, management said, and news of the deal sent its shares up more than 20% on Wednesday morning. The biotech, headquartered in South San Francisco, is working with Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) on treatments for cancer and respiratory ailments, all the while pushing forward with a pair of oncology candidates of its own.

"We feel that bluebird bio is well positioned to succeed with converting Five Prime's human antibodies to CAR-T cell products that can benefit patients, and we are pleased that our proprietary platform continues to demonstrate its versatility in the field of immuno-oncology," Five Prime CEO Lewis Williams said in a statement.

- read the announcement