Pfizer buys big into CAR-T with sweeping Cellectis deal

Pfizer ($PFE) wants in on CAR-T technology, the latest much-celebrated trend in cancer R&D, striking a deal with France's Cellectis to get its hands on some tailored immunotherapies with the promise of billions in future payments.

Cellectis' platform works by using chimeric antigen receptors to reprogram T cells and transform them into cancer-fighting agents, called CAR-T immunotherapies. Under the expansive agreement, Pfizer gets exclusive right to Cellectis' technology to develop and market oncology drugs aimed at 15 Pfizer-selected targets. Cellectis will pick 12 targets of its own, and its new partner will pitch in on preclinical work for four of them.

In exchange, Pfizer is offering Cellectis an $80 million upfront payment, funding for R&D and as much as $185 million in milestone payments for each successful candidate, setting the maximum deal value at roughly $2.8 billion. Furthermore, pending approval by Cellectis shareholders, Pfizer has agreed to take a 10% stake in the company by buying up newly created shares at €9.25 ($6.82) each.

The intricate agreement gives Pfizer a beachhead in the fast-moving CAR-T space, which has churned out excellent results--and a few alarming safety signals--in small studies, completely eradicating cancers in some cases. And the company's a bit late to the field. Novartis ($NVS) and the venture-backed Juno Therapeutics are already up and running with CAR-T clinical trials, while Celgene ($CELG) and collaborator bluebird bio ($BLUE) have been at work on their own program since last year.

But Cellectis--and, apparently, Pfizer--believe the company's approach to CAR-T has broader potential than those of its rivals. Instead of harvesting each patient's T cells to craft a bespoke immunotherapy, Cellectis uses allogenic CAR-Ts to create what it calls an off-the-shelf solution, giving its treatments the potential to be more easily manufactured and standardized.

"We believe our CAR-T platform technology has the potential to offer a real advantage over other approaches to T cell receptor engineering, and this collaboration with Pfizer is an important step towards realizing the full potential of this technology in harnessing the body's own immune system to fight cancer," Cellectis CEO André Choulika said in a statement. "This alliance provides access to Pfizer's state-of-the-art therapeutic development capabilities and provides a unique opportunity to advance this innovative work with the goal of developing best-in-class CAR-T therapeutics."

Cellectis, which is headquartered in Paris, said it plans to open a research site in the U.S. to work more closely with Pfizer's R&D team.

- read the statement