Atara brings on Novartis vet to replace founder Ciechanover as chief
After founding T-cell immunotherapy company Atara Biotherapeutics using Amgen $AMGN drug assets in 2012, Isaac Ciechanover made a surprise decision to leave the company this January. Novartis veteran Pascal Touchon is set to replace him as chief, the South San Francisco biotech said on Tuesday.
Existing CAR-T therapies — Novartis’ $GILD Kymriah and Gilead’s $GILD Yescarta — target a single antigen called CD19. Atara — akin to other players in pursuit of next-gen CAR-T drugs — is working on engineering T cells (a type of white blood cell) to tackle multiple targets for addressing cancers with diverse cell types that often become resistant to treatment, such as acute myelogenous leukemia and B cell malignancies.
Kymriah was the first CAR-T drug to win approval in the United States and Europe. The therapy — an autologous product made from patients’ own T cells — was expected to notch blockbuster revenue, but sales have suffered due to manufacturing wobbles. Atara’s technology, meanwhile, is powered to create an allogeneic, off-the-shelf CAR-T therapy, comprising cells bioengineered from donors with healthy immune function.
Touchon is well versed in Novartis’ Kymriah woes. Most recently, he worked within Novartis Oncology as global head, cell & gene and as a member of the oncology executive committee, where he was in charge of global rollout of Kymriah — securing regulatory approval and reimbursement in major markets, expanding global CAR T manufacturing and technical operations and overseeing multiple new clinical studies. Before taking on that role, Touchon served as global head, strategy, business development of oncology at Novartis. Touchon has also previously worked at Servier, Sanofi and Glaxo.
Dietmar Berger, who joined Atara last year as head of R&D to steer the company’s allogeneic T cell immunotherapies through the clinic, both in CAR-T and other applications, is stepping down from his position to pursue other opportunities, Atara added.
Atara’s lead experimental drug, tabelecleucel, is in late-stage development for patients with Epstein-Barr virus-associated post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, and is in earlier stage development for other EBV-associated hematologic malignancies and solid tumors.