Roche, Kite Pharma sign CAR-T and PD-L1 combo deal

Roche ($RHHBY) and Kite Pharma ($KITE) are bringing together two of the hottest tickets in oncology research under a new deal announced this week.

Under the partnership, the Swiss major will test its new PD-L1 (programmed death ligand-1) drug atezolizumab alongside California-based biotech Kite's immunotherapy CAR-T (chimeric antigen-receptor T-cell) treatment KTE-C19 in patients with refractory, aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Financial details were not disclosed, but both will pay towards the new studies, with Kite sponsoring a Phase 1b/2 study set to begin later this year.

Kite's drug is an investigational immunotherapy in which a patient's T cells are genetically modified to express a CAR designed to target the antigen CD19, a protein expressed on the cell surface of B cell lymphomas and leukemias.

Meanwhile, atezolizumab is an investigational mAb designed to target and bind to a protein called PD-L1, which is expressed on tumor cells and tumor-infiltrating immune cells. The two companies hope that combining their treatments will provide a synergistic effect, since inhibiting PD-L1 with atezolizumab may enhance extend the activity and spread of KTE-C19.

PD-L1 and CAR-T are the two big buzzwords of cancer R&D right now with multibillion-dollar sales and vastly improved efficacy expected from the treatments in the coming years.

Roche has however been skeptical about developing its own CAR-T therapies, with its head of pharmaceuticals Daniel O'Day recently telling Bloomberg that these types of treatment: "Require numerous procedures and intensive manufacturing processes for each patient, unlike more typical one-size-fits-all drugs".

But there have been some fantastic results coming from CAR-T studies, with Roche's fellow native (and rival) Novartis ($NVS) publishing recent results of a study that saw its drug wipe out an aggressive blood cancer in 93% of children and young adults who received it, with 18 of 59 patients cancer-free after 12 months. Similar results from Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO) and Kite have also been shown over the past year.

But most of these stellar data have come from blood cancer targets, with results for solid tumors less clear. It seems Roche is now willing to become a little more involved in the CAR-T space with this deal--although with a lowered financial risk if things don't work out.

Roche has had a good week given that atezolizumab was on Tuesday granted a priority review from the FDA for a license to treat certain late-stage bladder cancer patients. This means it could be approved by mid-September, making it the first PD-L1 drug for bladder cancer to reach the market.

Kite is also pushing ahead as one of the front runners in the CAR-T race, with KTE-C19 currently being tested in a host of other cancers. It has already been given a breakthrough therapy status from the FDA for the treatment of patients with refractory diffuse large B cell lymphoma, primary mediastinal B cell lymphoma, and transformed follicular lymphoma.

But is certainly not the only player. And nor is it the only one to combined these two drugs for this disease as its rival Juno signed a similar deal last year to test a combination of one of its CAR-Ts with AstraZeneca's ($AZN) PD-L1 blocker in NHL.

Roche is also battling with AZ to be the third to market in the PD-1 and PD-L1 space--Merck & Co ($MRK) and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) were the first in 2014 to bring these new types of immunotherapies to market in the forms of Keytruda and Opdivo respectively.