Bellicum buys into CAR-T manufacturing amid a hot immuno-oncology race

Bellicum CEO Tom Farrell

Following the lead of Juno Therapeutics and Kite Pharma, CAR-T contender Bellicum Pharmaceuticals ($BLCM) is splashing cash on an in-house manufacturing operation, speeding its cell therapies into clinical trials in a host of cancers.

The biotech has leased a 27,000-square-foot manufacturing site that can churn out the modified T cells needed for so-called CAR-T therapies, which soup up patients' immune systems to fight cancer. The new facility will sit on Bellicum's Houston campus, adjacent to the Texas Medical Center, the company said.

CAR-T rivals Juno ($JUNO) and Kite ($KITE) each made similar splashes on manufacturing this year, believing that the complex process of crafting cell therapies is best done internally and not left to contractors. Novartis ($NVS), a leader in the space, has built dedicated facilities of its own, and each company is pursuing a fleet of clinical trials in hopes of establishing CAR-T's promise in more and more indications.

"Bringing manufacturing in-house allows us to build upon our process and assay development expertise and streamline the production of our cell therapy product candidates, under our full control," Bellicum CEO Tom Farrell said in a statement. "The planned facility is intended to provide study drug for clinical studies of BPX-501 and to support the development of our expanding pipeline of TCR and CAR-T adoptive cell therapy product candidates."

BPX-501, a T cell therapy designed to ward off graft-versus-host disease in patients undergoing stem cell transplants, is Bellicum's most advance asset, and the company has applied the same technology to oncology. Bellicum's cancer pipeline includes BPX-401, a CAR-T candidate targeting the CD19 antigen, which is expressed by hematological cancer cells. Following that is BPX-601, another CAR-T that targets solid tumors, and BPX-701, an immunotherapy for skin cancer.

Each of the company's cell therapies is equipped with a "safety switch" Bellicum says can mute unwanted transplant reactions like cytokine release syndrome, a common response to CAR-T therapy that has occasionally proven fatal in early studies. That feature, the company is betting, will help its assets stand out in a fast-crowding field.

- read the statement