Celgene strikes $1.5bn cell therapy deal with Immatics

There are three types of white blood cells.  T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes and natural killer cells.

Celgene shows no sign of slowing down on the deal-making front as its merger with Bristol-Myers Squibb draws nearer. Its latest – with Immatics – bolsters its immuno-oncology business and could be worth more than $1.5 billion.

Immatics is a specialist in T cell receptor (TCR) therapeutics, an emerging area of cancer immunotherapy that involves re-engineering T cells so they are better at recognising and killing cancer cells.

The approach is similar to that used in CAR-T therapies – which have already started to reach the market – although proponents of TCRs say they are likely to be more widely useful as they can target proteins on the inside of cells while CAR-Ts only work against cell surface molecules. So far, CAR-Ts have also been unable to target solid tumours.

Celgene – which is already a player in CAR-T with its $9 billion Juno acquisition and alliance with Bluebird Bio – is paying $75 million upfront to Immatics to buy into three programmes, with up to $505 million in milestones due for each of them if successful.

Immatics will use its TCR platform to identify therapies against solid tumour targets, and if successful will have the responsibility of advancing those through to the lead candidate stage.

Celgene will then decide whether it wants to exercise an option on each programme and take over the cost of development, with Immatics – for the first time in its partnering – retaining some early stage co-development or co-funding rights.

Celgene is just the latest partner for the German-US biotech, which has also signed $1 billion-plus collaborations with Amgen, Roche and Genmab.

The Amgen and Genmab deals focused on Immatics’ bispecific immunotherapies, however, while the bulk of Roche’s investment lies mainly in peptide cancer vaccines. Celgene is the first company to sign a partnership focusing on the biotech’s TCR platform.

The new alliance has been agreed just a few weeks after co-founder Harpreet Singh took the group chief executive role at Immatics,  having previously been CEO of the US unit. Immatics US was set up in 2015 in partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center to capitalise on the latter’s cell therapy expertise.

Singh said the alliance will “enable the development of truly novel opportunities for patients with solid tumours who currently have no other treatment options.”

Celgene’s latest deal comes as it celebrates the sale of its blockbuster psoriasis therapy Otezla (apremilast) to Amgen for an impressive $13.4 billion, clearing the way for the $74 billion merger with BMS to complete before the end of the year.