Servier stages an entry into high-stakes CAR-T showdown with Novartis

CAR-T cancer drugs are hot, and Servier wants in. The French biotech announced this morning that it will collaborate with Paris-based Cellectis on UCART19, an engineered T cell with a chimeric antigen receptor for leukemia and lymphomas, as well as 5 other such programs. Servier is paying Cellectis $10 million down and up to $140 million per program in milestones in its gamble on the biotech's approach.

The news helped drive up Cellectis' shares by 43%. The biotech struck the deal after reporting animal data several months ago, claiming that UCART19 "eradicated" human leukemia cells that had been transferred into mice. Cancer drugs that have done well in mouse studies, though, have a high mortality rate once they begin human studies.

Servier is gaining an early-stage entry into a field now focused on a high-stakes showdown between pharma giant Novartis ($NVS) and newcomer Juno Therapeutics, which raised a whopping $145 million in an enormous Series A round. Novartis has been pushing hard to advance a CD19-targeting engineered T cell through the clinic after gaining rights to the program, which was first put through a small human study by University of Pennsylvania investigator Carl June. Just yesterday Novartis said it would buy out CoStim, a Cambridge, MA-based startup focused on a PD-1 approach to immunotherapy, so it could combine it with its CAR-T therapy.

The approach is both simple and potentially revolutionary, taking T cells from patients and then reengineering them with a chimeric antigen receptor to target cancer cells. Cellectis and Servier say that their approach does not rely on patient cells. 

Juno is pursuing litigation over June's work, claiming that it controls the IP. Servier, like everyone else now focused on cancer immunotherapy, is looking to use this tech with new combination drugs.

Jean-Pierre Abastado, who heads up the Oncology Innovation Center at Servier, noted that "these original cell-based therapies will well complement Servier's innovative clinical oncology pipeline, which currently includes immunotherapeutic monoclonal antibodies, an HDAC inhibitor, kinase inhibitors, antiangiogenic and proapoptotic small molecules."

- here's the release