Kite expands its immuno-oncology brain trust in the CAR-T footrace

Zelig Eshhar

Kite Pharma ($KITE), contending with a slew of rivals in the newfangled field of immuno-oncology, has aligned itself with a pioneer in the field, teaming up with an Israeli university to work on treatments that train the body's own defenses on cancerous growth.

The Santa Monica biotech has signed a collaboration agreement with Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, allowing it to join forces with Professor Zelig Eshhar, chairman of the center's immunology R&D department and a trailblazer in CAR-T research. The field hinges on removing T cells from a patient's blood and equipping them with targeting mechanisms called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), which seek out and bind to proteins expressed by cancer cells. The resulting cells are reinjected into the patient, at which point they track down malignancies and attack them as they would any commonplace infection.

Last year, Eshhar received a Massry Prize for his work in modifying T cells and shared Human Gene Therapy's Pioneer Award with Carl June, another CAR-T luminary who has aligned with Novartis ($NVS). Now the Israeli scientist is lending his expertise to Kite as it develops next-generation CAR-T therapies, building off the field's early clinical success in blood cancers and setting sights on solid tumors.

"Originally, my research had addressed the question of whether T cells can be programmed to effectively recognize and eliminate cancerous cells and to solve the central problem of how and why cancer cells escape the immune system," Eshhar said in a statement. "Now, we believe that we can further enhance this platform technology to develop a whole new generation of CAR-T cell products for many tumor types."

Kite's move is part of a worldwide scramble for top scientific talent among CAR-T contenders. Novartis, an early adopter, has been working with June and his team at the University of Pennsylvania since 2012, while Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO) owes its innovation to founding heavyweights Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Baylor University's Malcolm Brenner has joined up with bluebird bio ($BLUE) and Celgene ($CELG) as they advance a CAR-T program, while Intrexon ($XON) and Ziopharm ($ZIOP) have shouldered into the field with the aid of the University of Texas' MD Anderson Cancer Center.

- read the announcement

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