Can tiny Mus­tang Bio com­pete on the CAR-T front with gi­ants like No­var­tis and Gilead? Man­ny Litch­man aims to find out

Now that No­var­tis and Gilead have picked up the first two ap­provals for CAR-T drugs, you can ex­pect to see ri­vals com­ing along who will probe for any weak­ness­es in their ap­proach, look­ing to com­pete on the next wave of per­son­al­ized cell ther­a­pies head­ed through the clin­ic.

The small crew at Mus­tang Bio — $MBIO, up 11% to­day — has some big am­bi­tions on that score, and to­day they’re adding some man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pac­i­ty that the com­pa­ny be­lieves will be cen­tral to its abil­i­ty to even­tu­al­ly com­pete with these two gi­ants.

Man­ny Litch­man

Mus­tang has inked a lease deal with the UMass Med­i­cine Sci­ence Park in Worces­ter, MA, where they ex­pect to be­gin pro­duc­tion of their CAR-Ts next year. And they’ll be aim­ing to make these cell ther­a­pies for ear­ly-stage stud­ies for glioblas­toma and acute myeloid leukemia and a grow­ing sta­ble of pre­clin­i­cal ef­forts.

Look­ing for com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tages at this stage of the game will re­ly quite a lot on a “more stream­lined, more cost ef­fec­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing ap­proach,” CEO Man­ny Litch­man tells me. “Every­thing re­al­ly has cost in mind,” he adds, siz­ing up the first two ther­a­pies that come with hefty six-fig­ure price tags.

“Look in the black box of man­u­fac­tur­ing,” he says, and you can see “dozens of pa­ra­me­ters that can vary.”

There’s more reengi­neer­ing work to be done to make CAR-Ts bet­ter at com­bat­ting can­cers like glioblas­toma and AML, he adds. In­ves­ti­ga­tors, for ex­am­ple, have been bal­anc­ing the im­pact of quick ver­sus slow­er ac­tion of the ther­a­peu­tic — slow­er ac­tion ap­pears to be more durable — along with a mul­ti­tude of com­bi­na­tion ap­proach­es that need to be ex­plored.

There’s enough po­ten­tial in these new ap­proach­es to of­fer an open­ing for a com­pa­ny like Mus­tang to step in and ex­ploit new op­por­tu­ni­ties, he be­lieves.

Litch­man left the helm at Arv­inas, a pro­tein degra­da­tion biotech spun out of the lab of Yale’s Craig Crews, to take the lunge at CAR-T. It’s a field he knows some­thing about. As for­mer head of on­col­o­gy BD at No­var­tis, Litch­man was present at the cre­ation of the Penn/No­var­tis deal that set the phar­ma gi­ant down the path to­ward an his­toric CAR-T ap­proval. He was pro­gram head of CTL019 for awhile. And he’s fol­low­ing in much the same path that the pi­o­neers — along with Kite and Juno — did, let­ting the sci­en­tif­ic founders do the ear­ly-stage re­search work that will be used to set up the fast-paced piv­otal de­vel­op­ment pro­grams to come.

Stephen For­man

In Mus­tang’s case, that in­volves Stephen For­man’s lab­o­ra­to­ry at City of Hope Na­tion­al Med­ical Cen­ter and top re­searchers at the Fred Hutchin­son Can­cer Re­search Cen­ter, where Oliv­er Press and Bri­an Till have been build­ing a T cell ther­a­py which ex­press­es a CD20-spe­cif­ic chimeric anti­gen re­cep­tor. That work has ex­pand­ed Mus­tang’s pipeline to 6 clin­i­cal and pre­clin­i­cal ef­forts.

The Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute for Re­gen­er­a­tive Med­i­cine, rest­less­ly look­ing to make a clin­i­cal mark af­ter years in­vest­ing in labs, just days ago pro­vid­ed a $12.8 mil­lion grant to the City of Hope for the Phase I glioblas­toma study. And that comes on top of a $94.5 mil­lion raise in Feb­ru­ary from a pri­vate place­ment arranged by its par­ent com­pa­ny Fortress, which is build­ing a port­fo­lio of biotechs.

Try­ing to leapfrog in­to a clin­i­cal ri­val­ry in a com­plex are­na like this will cost much, much more than that. And Litch­man tells me he has plans to raise some­where be­tween $60 mil­lion and $100 mil­lion more next year.

Right now, Mus­tang has 5 full timers, a tiny boat­load of staffers com­pared to the jug­ger­nauts crewed by No­var­tis and Gilead’s Kite. Juno al­so has a much larg­er op­er­a­tion look­ing to make a come­back af­ter their lead ther­a­py was de­stroyed by its lethal tox­i­c­i­ty. But Litch­man plans to up that to about 20 over the next year, while the in­de­pen­dent sci­en­tists con­tin­ue to do the heavy lift­ing in the ear­ly stud­ies.

This is one race that Litch­man says is still very much just be­gin­ning. And it won’t be dom­i­nat­ed by a hand­ful of lead­ers.

Janet Woodcock (AP Images)

Janet Wood­cock to be act­ing FDA com­mis­sion­er while Biden team fi­nal­izes nom­i­nee — re­ports

Janet Woodcock is set to be the most powerful person at the FDA in less than a week.

The veteran regulator and longtime director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research has been tapped as acting commissioner of the FDA, according to reports by BioCentury’s Steve Usdin and Pink Sheet’s Sarah Karlin-Smith.

The appointment was requested by the incoming Biden team, Karlin-Smith added, as they sort out the nomination of a permanent successor to Stephen Hahn — whose one-year tenure has been defined by Covid-19.

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Janet Woodcock (AP Images)

Janet Wood­cock is in the run­ning for FDA com­mis­sion­er — what does that mean for the agen­cy's fu­ture?

Just a day after reports emerged that Janet Woodcock will serve as interim chief of the FDA, word has gotten out that she is also in the running for the permanent job.

The decision, as the initial wave of reactions suggest, could have dramatic implications for where the agency is headed in the next four years — if not beyond.

Woodcock, the longtime CDER director, is being vetted alongside former FDA principal deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein, Bloomberg reported. Already tapped as acting head of the agency, she’s set to take over from Stephen Hahn right after Biden’s inauguration next week.

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Steve Harr (L) and Hans Bishop

Paint­ing by the num­bers, Sana founders carve up a gi­ant uni­corn-sized IPO — for a biotech that has­n't quite made it to the clin­ic

Sana Biotechnology is one of those startups that was sketched in on the chalkboard day one in the shape of a unicorn.

A giant unicorn.

And from the numbers the cell therapy 2.0 play spelled out in their S-1 $SANA, it’s clear that the company founders — led by a pair of major VCs aligned with some high-profile industry figures — are hunting a big chunk of that value for themselves.

The raise they penciled in — $150 million — isn’t likely what they actually have in mind, and it doesn’t do justice to the size of their ambitions.

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Eli Lil­ly re-ups di­ver­si­ty pledge, pitch­ing in $30M to ven­ture fund for mi­nor­i­ty-owned health­care firms

The fight against racial injustice spurred by a series of high-profile shootings of Black men by police earlier this year put Big Pharma and healthcare — industries targeted for their lack of diversity — in the hot seat. Eli Lilly made an early pledge to change its ways and put more back into the community, and now it’s continuing to make good on that commitment.

Lilly will infuse $30 million into the Unseen Capital Health Fund, a venture fund looking to invest in early-stage minority-owned healthcare companies that have been historically “unseen” by the investment community, the pharma said Friday.

CEO Brett Monia (Ionis)

Can Brett Mo­nia push Io­n­is be­yond Spin­raza?

For 30 years, Brett Monia struggled as one of Ionis’ top scientists to get their antisense technology to work. Now, as CEO, he’s trying to use it to turn Ionis into one of the industry’s biggest biotechs.

Monia, one of the handful of young scientists who in 1989 followed Stanley Crooke across the country from SmithKline (now GSK) in Philadelphia to found Ionis in Northern California, replaced Crooke as CEO last January. By then, they had proven antisense, an RNA-based method for manipulating gene expression, could work dramatically well in at least some instances, transforming spinal muscular atrophy with the Biogen-partnered blockbuster Spinraza.

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David Kessler in April 2009 (Eric Risberg/AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Hack­ers start re­leas­ing 'ma­nip­u­lat­ed' Covid-19 vac­cine docs; Ex-FDA com­mish David Kessler to re­place Mon­cef Slaoui as Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed chief — re­port

There’s a new twist on the EMA Covid-19 hacking story.

Friday the European agency put out the 5th in a series of statements about the hackers who broke into their system, noting that some of the information on vaccines that was gleaned in the attack is showing up online — altered to raise questions about the Covid-19 vaccines now in use.

This included internal/confidential email correspondence dating from November, relating to evaluation processes for COVID-19 vaccines. Some of the correspondence has been manipulated by the perpetrators prior to publication in a way which could undermine trust in vaccines.

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Am­gen tops cost watch­dog's price gougers list based on 'un­sup­port­ed' in­creas­es for En­brel with­out mean­ing­ful da­ta

In a top 10 ranking of the most egregious price gougers from 2019, Amgen’s Enbrel topped US cost watchdog ICER’s naughty list with “unsupported” markups that added as much as $403 million to the nation’s drug spend during that time.

Price increases for some of pharma’s most popular drugs have long been a focus of consumer ire, but the industry has argued those increases are routine and meant to cover the cost of R&D innovation. Without meaningful guidance at the state or federal level, ICER looked to connect how much a drug had progressed in the clinic compared with its increase in both wholesale and net price in 2019.

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Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO (AP Images)

#JPM21: Al­bert Bourla pre­pares Pfiz­er to set­tle in to next phase post-Up­john, but that does­n't mean he's rul­ing out deals

One of the iconic brands in biopharma, Pfizer took a big gamble on the strength of its in-house science when it decided to offload its flagging Upjohn generics business last year. Now, a more agile Pfizer is looking to cement its identity for the future, but one thing will stay the same: M&A is still very much a part of the game plan.

With its Upjohn generics business off the books, Pfizer is looking to double down on its branded medicines with the goal of hitting 6% annual growth each year — previously unheard-of at old Pfizer — while continuing to develop its blockbuster pipeline, CEO Albert Bourla said at a JP Morgan fireside chat Tuesday.

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Stefan Oelrich (Bayer)

What can a 157-year-old phar­ma gi­ant bring to the ta­ble of cell and gene ther­a­pies? Quite a bit, Bay­er says

By now, Bayer has sketched out in bold strokes some grand plans for cell and gene therapy, cemented by big-dollar acquisitions of platform companies.

But just how do you stitch together a new unit bursting with the newest ideas within a storied pharma?

Stefan Oelrich, the head of Bayer’s pharma division, briefly lifted the curtain and spotlighted three key factors as he took the stage on a virtual media day, flanked by Emile Nuwaysir and Sheila Mikhail, the chiefs of BlueRock and AskBio, who each introduced their work in a way you’d expect from a biotech CEO.