Novartis commits $20M to build a new CAR-T development center at Penn

Carl June

With a lead chimeric antigen receptor program holding on to a breakthrough drug designation at the FDA and Penn's Carl June grabbing headlines for the data his team is seeing among cancer victims, their big pharma backer Novartis ($NVS) is contributing $20 million to build a new, 30,000-square-foot research center at the university that will concentrate on developing a wave of new immuno-oncology drugs.

The center--to be added at the rear of the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine on Penn Medicine's University City campus--will have a staff of about 100 specialized workers in the field. Novartis's contribution will cover part of the total cost of the center.

The Center for Advanced Cellular Therapeutics (CACT) is to be built on the Penn Medicine campus in Philadelphia, where they will be genetically reengineering patients' T cells with chimeric antigen receptors to make them much more efficient cancer cell killers. Novartis licensed in the work, which has been racing against a rival team at Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics to bring in the first approval in the field.

Juno and Novartis and all the researchers involved are also engaged in a nasty legal battle over the technology used in CAR-T treatments.

"The past five years have been a time of explosive, exciting progress in the field of cancer cellular therapy," said June in a statement. "The results we've seen among the leukemia patients we've treated using our 'hunter' cells have accelerated our expectations for the potential of these new therapies. Today, many of those brave patients are thriving, and through our work in the CACT, we hope to offer that chance to patients with many other types of cancers."

Slated for completion in 2016, this new facility will double the amount of space dedicated to CAR-T work at Penn. The university says that the expanded team will focus on vaccine development, assay development and correlative studies of blood and other biospecimens to examine how trial participants respond to the therapies they receive.

Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez has been an enthusiastic advocate of all things related to Penn and CAR-Ts. In an interview with Forbes earlier this year he essentially vowed to hand over a blank check to the investigators to hurry their work along. And in addition to the work at Novartis and Juno, Kite ($KITE) and other biotechs have been following up with a burst of new programs of their own.

In a recent Q&A with FierceBiotech Editor John Carroll, Penn's David Porter called this program one of the most exciting he'd seen in his 20-year career.

"We've now treated 80-plus patients in our trials with CAR-T cells, and are seeing remissions stretching toward four years for first patients," Porter noted in early June. "This therapy, CTL019, could change the paradigm for treating patients with refractory (treatment-resistant) leukemia."

- here's the release