Discovery, R&D

After Rova-T bust, AbbVie plans new solid tumor assault, licensing next-gen CAR-T tech from Calibr

After its disappointing Rova-T flop last month, AbbVie is shoring up its solid tumor bets with a freshly inked research deal that should elicit new strategies for tumor attack. This time, AbbVie is hoping to use potentially safer, next-gen CAR-Ts that have been cooking in the labs of a San Diego research institute for the past few years.

The pharma giant is buying an exclusive four-year license to tech developed at the California Institute for Biomedical Research — better known as Calibr — to interrogate some of its own cancer targets, including solid tumors. Calibr is bringing to the table a platform based on a “switchable” CAR-T cell. I talked with Travis Young, Calibr’s director of protein sciences, last Friday to find out what that actually means. Young tells me it’s about reducing toxicity and getting a more durable response from CAR-Ts, which are known to cause safety issues.

Travis Young

“CAR-Ts are potent, and they can cause toxicity in the clinic,” Young said. “This is about tunability. We’re calling this a switch, but it’s really more like a light dimmer. We want to tune activity and eliminate cancer cells without causing that toxicity.”

They do that by using antibody-based switch molecules to control the activation and antigen specificity of CAR-T cells. Young said it’s important to note this approach differs from the increasingly popular “kill switch” tactic, which has been touted as a way to make CAR-Ts safer.

“Rather than killing off the cells in the case of an adverse event, this is more proactive,” Young said.

The partnership has both Calibr and AbbVie doing preclinical work, while AbbVie alone will be responsible for clinical development and commercialization. Calibr, of course, will get milestones and royalties if certain targets are met, but the duo was tight-lipped on financial details of the deal.

The main focus of the collaboration will be AbbVie’s cancer targets, but Calibr is also working on a liquid tumor program of its own that might come into play down the road. Young said the yet-named program is a CD19 targeted switchable CAR-T therapy, which the institute plans to take into Phase I for lymphoma in 2019. As part of the deal, AbbVie has the option to license that program (and others at Calibr). That option expires in four years, however.

You didn’t used to see research institutes moving programs into the clinic, but its becoming an increasingly popular strategy for non-profit research centers and universities. The idea is that it helps them create a source of revenue independent from the federal government and philanthropy.

Matt Tremblay

“We’re at the head of this new theme to take your assets — your IP originated at the institute — and take them forward into clinical development,” Calibr and Scripps Research COO Matt Tremblay told me. 

This is something I discussed with Dave Gibbons, who handles commercial licensing at the biotech-heavy campus at UC San Diego, last year. By de-risking programs and developing up to IND, “you’d have a tremendously more valuable asset for licensing,” Gibbons said.

AbbVie’s oncology and clinical development expertise will be a boon to the resource-slim Calibr, but the pharma giant was also in need of this deal. The company disappointed investors in March when news that its Rova-T program posted poor mid-stage results for third-line non-small cell lung cancer. That was a real blow, considering it was hoped to be a $5 billion earner for the company.

Geoffrey Porges at Leerink posted a scathing assessment of AbbVie’s situation shortly after the news.

“Oncology is the key growth business segment for AbbVie after the loss of exclusivity for Humira in 2023, and today’s results and regulatory decision call into question the viability of the company’s current solid tumor strategy,” he wrote.

Perhaps Calibr’s tech will give their solid tumor strategy more hope.

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