Gilead is spending $US12 billion to buy Kite Pharma, a biotech that has no approved therapies yet.
The drugmaker’s therapy that’s a few months away from a possible approval is a highly personalised cancer treatments called CAR T-cell therapy. It’s a form of cancer immunotherapy — or a therapy that harnesses the body’s immune system to take on cancer cells.
For Gilead, which is known for its HIV and hepatitis C medications, this is an entirely new area of cancer development.
“The field of cell therapy has advanced very quickly, to the point where the science and technology have opened a clear path toward a potential cure for patients,” Gilead CEO John Milligan said in a news release. “We are greatly impressed with the Kite team and what they have accomplished, and share their belief that cell therapy will be the cornerstone of treating cancer.”
Here’s why cell therapies could be game-changing
Short for chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, CAR-T treatment removes a person’s cells from the body, reengineers them, and then puts the cells back in the body, where they can attack cancer cells. That means that a person’s own cells are the therapy, which makes it more difficult to manufacture than your average pill.
In July, a Food and Drug Administration panel voted in favour of approving one of these treatments made by Novartis. One of the panelists called it “most exciting thing I’ve seen in my lifetime.” The FDA is expected to decide whether to approve that therapy, a treatment for pediatric acute lymphoblastic lymphoblastic leukemia, by October.
Gilead won’t have to wait long to see if the FDA will approve Kite’s leading cell therapy, which is called axicabtagene ciloleucel or axi-cel. In November, Kite is expected to get an answer from the FDA regarding its CAR-T treatment for a type of blood cancer called aggressive B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In data Kite released in February, the company found that out of 101 patients, 36% had a complete response to the treatment after six months.
The one-time treatments won’t come cheap. While companies might price the drug based on how well it works, axi-cel’s price tag could still be $US325,000. Analysts expect the therapy to generate $US1.7 billion in sales by 2022.
While its axi-cel program is the farthest along, Kite’s also working on another CAR-T cell therapy that’s in clinical trials to treat multiple myeloma, another form of blood cancer. The company’s also working on cell therapies to treat solid tumours that are still in early clinical trials.