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BMS joins off the shelf cell therapy chase with alliance on Immatics cancer drug

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The first cancer cell therapies were personalized treatments made by isolating and engineering a patient’s own T cells in the lab—a complex, cumbersome, and expensive process. A slew of companies are pursuing off-the-shelf approaches that could make cell therapies easier to easier to produce and quicker to administer. Bristol Myers Squibb is adding a prospect to its pipeline with a deal for rights to an Immatics cell therapy that’s approaching its first test in humans.

BMS announced Tuesday an agreement to pay $150 million up front for global rights to IMA401, the lead program of Tübingen, Germany-based Immatics. The drug works by binding to two sites, one on a cancer cell and the other on a T cell. The class of therapies called bispecific antibodies already do this, an approach validated by the FDA approval of Amgen’s blinatumomab in 2014, a drug marketed as Blincyto. However, the toxic effects of that drug leave room for improvement. Immatics and others are aiming are developing therapies that could fit the bill.

Immatics describes its molecules as antibody-like biologics. They’re engineered from two components: a part of a T cell receptor that recognizes a cancer cell and a second domain that recruits and activates the T cells. These two components are designed to bring their respective targets into close proximity so that the T cells recognize and destroy the cancer cells. Immatics calls its molecules T Cell Engaging Receptors, or TCERs.

Because the Immatics therapy isn’t made from the T cells of either a patient or a donor and is instead comprised of off-the-shelf components, Immatics contends its molecules have advantages. They should be less expensive to make and distribute, which should make them accessible to a broader swath of cancer patients, according to the company. Also, Immatics TCERs could work in solid tumors, which have so far eluded CAR T, the first wave of personalized cancer cell therapies. IMA401 is designed with a binding region that targets MAGEA4/8, an antigen found in many types of solid tumors.

In preclinical research reported last year, Immatics said that its experimental therapy demonstrated that it could recruit T cells to the target cancer cells. In the announcement of the new alliance, Teri Foy, senior vice president, research and early development, immuno-oncology and cell therapy at BMS, said that TCERs are “an important, emerging modality for solid tumors with the potential for cell therapy-like efficacy in an off-the-shelf platform offering potentially broader patient access.”

The alliance on IMA401 builds on a partnership that BMS inherited from its Celgene acquisition. Two years ago, Celgene and Immatics began working together to develop T cell receptor therapies, or TCRs. BMS and Immatics said Tuesday that the new alliance complements the ongoing cell therapy research and the terms of that pact exclude the MAGEA4/8 targets that IMA401 is designed to address.

A growing number of biotechs are pursuing new and better ways of recruiting T cell responses to cancer, some of them partnered with big pharma companies. Xencor’s progress with its bispecific antibody drug plamotumab led to an October deal with Johnson & Johnson, which is committing $125 million to the biotech for global rights to that drug. Merck-partnered Janux Therapeutics raised more than $193 million from its June IPO to finance development T cell engagers, a type of drug designed to bind to both cancer cells and T cells. Takeda Pharmaceutical joined the T cell engager chase through the $525 million acquisition of its research partner Maverick Therapeutics. Biotech startups are also pursuing new ways to prompt T cell responses. Marengo Therapeutics emerged from stealth last month with $80 million in funding to develop antibodies that selectively activate T cells to fight cancer.

The new BMS and Immatics alliance comes as IMA401 is being readied for human testing. A clinical trial application was filed in Germany last month. That study, which is expected to begin in the first half of 2022, is designed to test the therapy against various types of solid tumors. Immatics and BMS will collaborate on developing the therapy. Immatics could earn up to $770 million in additional milestone payments. If the cell therapy reaches the market, the biotech also has the option to co-promote the treatment in the U.S.

Photo: Jeremy Moeller, Getty Images

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