Celgene narrows pioneering CAR-T collaboration with bluebird bio, hands over $25M sweetener

Two years after Celgene ($CELG) dangled a selection of $225 million milestone prizes in front of bluebird bio ($BLUE) in exchange for collaborating on a range of CAR-T cancer drug programs, the Big Biotech has narrowed its sights to a single target and chipped in a $25 million payment to move their lead candidate into the clinic soon.

Considered one of the pioneering partnerships in the sizzling hot CAR-T arena, the gene therapy experts at bluebird will now push ahead with a Phase I study of a drug (bb2121) targeting the B-cell maturation antigen early in 2016. Investigators have long considered BCMA a prime candidate for an adoptive T-cell therapy for multiple myeloma, a hematological malignancy that is among the first wave of CAR-T targets to attract developers. Celgene has an option to pick up development work after the early-stage study, with bluebird holding on to a co-marketing option in the U.S.

In a statement, Cambridge, MA-based bluebird noted that the rest of the programs they were working on would revert back to bluebird. That's not the kind of broad-ranging kind of collaboration with multiple programs the market had in mind, and bluebird's shares--one of the biotech darlings on Wall Street this year--slid 7% on the news.

Bluebird, though, painted the change-up as a big win.

Nick Leschly, CEO of Bluebird Bio

"We have successfully achieved the initial goal of our collaboration with Celgene--identifying a promising lead development candidate in the CAR T cell field--and we are excited to focus our Celgene collaboration on the development of anti-BCMA products," said Nick Leschly, chief of bluebird, in a statement. "Celgene is a leader in developing and commercializing therapies for multiple myeloma, and we believe they are the best global partner for our first CAR T program. Together we look forward to entering the clinic early next year with bb2121 and continuing our collaboration around next-generation BCMA products."

Barclay's Geoff Meacham offered a nod for the revised deal. "We like Celgene's strategy of defending the long-term outlook of its MM franchise by collaborating with emerging agents (seen previously with agents targeting Btk, CD38, PD-1, and now BCMA)--which could be potential threats over the longer run," he noted Wednesday evening.

As part of its 2013 pact with Celgene, bluebird entered into a pact with Baylor in Texas, which has been actively engaged in reengineering T cells into cancer therapies. Bluebird has been developing gene editing technology in order to boost its efforts in the field. Bluebird plans to continue its preclinical CAR-T work in hematologic malignancies as well as solid tumors, a far more challenging field in CAR-T. The biotech recently inked a deal to work with Five Prime Therapeutics, combining Five Prime's antigen discovery platform and certain human antibodies with bluebird bio's immuno-oncology and gene therapy capabilities. 

- here's the release

Special Report: The 25 most influential people in biopharma in 2015 - Nick Leschly - bluebird bio