UPDATED: J&J jumps into hot CAR-T field with gene-editing experts at Transposagen

Over the past year, new CAR-T cancer therapies have turned into a sizzling new development field in biopharma--and now Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) wants in. The pharma giant is following in the footsteps of pioneers like Novartis, Celgene and GlaxoSmithKline, inking a discovery-stage development deal--but turning to the little-known Transposagen Biopharmaceuticals to make its entry. And J&J says the broad-ranging deal will include the use of the biotech's gene editing tech in developing new gene and cell therapies.

J&J's Janssen and the little biotech, which is based far from the madding biotech crowd in Lexington, KY, will collaborate over the next three years on new CAR-T drugs; reengineering T cells to include a chimeric antigen receptor so they can zero in on cancer cells. Along with an unspecified upfront--typically fairly small in discovery-stage deals--J&J will pay up to $292 million per treatment in milestones.

In return, J&J will control all worldwide commercial rights.

Barry Springer

"We feel like we found the diamond in the rough," says Barry Springer, who handles the partnership side of the business for the Janssen Biotechnology Center of Excellence. The link-up was inspired, he adds, by a 5-year strategy review to get a fix on the next big wave of opportunities in R&D. Gene editing tech and gene therapies have been on their radar for awhile, and it's no secret that autologous T cell engineering--adapting cells extracted from patients--has attracted a huge amount of attention of late.

One of the reasons why Janssen zeroed in on Transposagen, he added, is that their technology has the potential to develop allogeneic T cell therapies--off-the-shelf therapies that can be instantly used to treat and potentially cure cancer. And they'll be looking beyond where the pioneers started to see what other cancer types can be targeted with this technology.

"We view it as the next-generation version of what we're after," says Springer, who says he's pumped to combine J&J's considerable development expertise with the tool kit that's been fine-tuned at Transposagen.

Novartis ($NVS), Kite Pharma ($KITE) and Juno Therapeutics--which just won breakthrough drug status at the FDA--each have their own anti-CD19 CAR T programs in development. Celgene ($CELG), in collaboration with bluebird bio ($BLUE), poses a competitive threat using technology from Baylor College of Medicine, while GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has entered into a $350 million T-cell reengineering deal with Adaptimmune in the U.K.

"The research collaboration with Janssen will pair Transposagen's cutting-edge gene editing and gene delivery technology and expertise with Janssen industry-leading technologies in the antibody and antibody alternative areas to create what may be the ideal CAR-T therapy," said Eric Ostertag, CEO of Transposagen.

Transposagen originally specialized in marketing genetically modified animals for R&D, but more recently it's been marketing its talents in CAR-T and CRISPR, another gene editing tech that's been the subject of growing interest in the biotech field. This new deal with J&J raises its profile in the industry considerably.

- here's the release