Celgene is buying the cancer-drug maker Juno Therapeutics for $9 billion

  • Celgene is acquiring Juno Therapeutics, a company developing personalised cancer treatments, in a deal worth $US9 billion.
  • It’s the second deal in 2018 for the biotech giant, which has been under pressure from investors.
  • The highly personalised treatments Juno makes, called CAR T-cell therapy, are at the beginning of an emerging field of medicine.

Celgene is buying Juno Therapeutics.

The biotech giant is acquiring the cancer-drug maker in a $US9 billion deal, Celgene said on Monday. Celgene, which already owned 9.7% of Juno’s shares, will pay $US87 a share in cash.

Juno is known for its experimental, highly personalised cancer treatments called CAR T-cell therapy (CAR is short for chimeric antigen receptor).

“The acquisition of Juno builds on our shared vision to discover and develop transformative medicines for patients with incurable blood cancers,” Celgene CEO Mark Alles said in a news release Monday. Celgene, which has been under pressure from investors to make some changes after a rocky 2017, has now made two acquisitions this month, after picking up Impact Biosciences in a $US7 billion deal on January 7.

2017 was a big year for these CAR-T treatments: the Food and Drug Administration approved two treatments, one to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia in people up to age 25 and another to treat aggressive B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. And in August, Gilead Sciences nabbed the CAR-T drugmaker Kite Pharma in a $US12 billion deal.

Juno’s furthest-along treatment, JCAR017, is expected to be approved in the US to treat another type of blood cancer called diffuse large B-cell lymphoma in 2019. Celgene said the treatment had the potential to hit $US3 billion in global sales.

How CAR-T cell therapy works

These treatments aren’t your run-of-the-mill pill – or even a biologic drug, like insulin – that can be mass-produced. Since the therapy is made from a person’s own immune system, the process can take about three weeks.

  • To start, a doctor removes some white blood cells, the part of our body’s immune system responsible for combatting infections and foreign substances, from a patient. In a healthy body, the immune system can recognise abnormal, cancerous cells, but for people with cancer it doesn’t recognise that the cells are spreading.
  • The cells are taken to a manufacturing facility where they are reengineered to recognise cancer cells and wipe them out.
  • Those reprogrammed cells are sent back and administered to the patient.
How Car-T Therapy Works cancerAna Pelisson/Business Insider; Novartis

While the treatments don’t work in all patients, it can have dramatic results in those who do respond. For example, in a trial of 63 patients treated with Kymriah – the first cell therapy approved – 83% were in remission after three months, and 64% were still in remission after a year.

‘A big new field of medicine’

With two CAR-Ts already approved and more in the works over the next few years including Juno’s, cell therapy is starting to emerge as a field.

“We’re at the very beginning of what’s going to be a big new field of medicine,” David Epstein, who helped licence Kymriah from the University of Pennsylvania while at Novartis, told Business Insider in August after Kymriah was approved.

Epstein left Novartis in 2016 as CEO of its pharmaceuticals divisions. He’s now the executive chairman of Rubius Therapeutics, a biotech firm that is also working with cell therapy to develop treatments like the CAR-Ts that don’t have to be as personalised. The hope is that one day doctors will be able to prescribe a cell therapy and use it that same day instead of waiting weeks to get it back.

Epstein said he envisioned cell therapies having much shorter life cycles than traditional drugs. Instead of getting a better, updated therapy for a disease every decade or so, we might begin to see second-generation cell therapies in a few years.

One challenge these therapies still face is how toxic they can be. CAR-T’s side effects can be deadly. In May, Kite disclosed that one person had died in a clinical trial for its late-stage CAR-T therapy from cerebral edema, a condition in which excessive fluid causes the brain to swell. Juno said five people in its clinical trials had died, all from cerebral edema.

Eventually, though, cell therapies could go beyond blood cancers and be used to treat solid tumours and maybe even autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes, Epstein said.

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