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.

Qual­i­ty Con­trol in Cell and Gene Ther­a­py – What’s Re­al­ly at Stake?

In early 2021, Bluebird Bio was forced to suspend clinical trials of its gene therapy for sickle cell disease after two patients in the trial developed cancer. As company scientists rushed to assess whether there was any causal link between the therapy and the cancer cases, Bluebird’s stock value plummeted – as did those of multiple other biopharma companies developing similar therapies.

While investigations concluded that the gene therapy was unlikely to have caused cancer, investors and the public may be more skittish regarding the safety of gene and cell therapies after this episode. This recent example highlights how delicate the fields of cell and gene therapy remain today, even as they show great promise.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Sen­a­tors to NIH: Do more to pro­tect US bio­med­ical re­search from for­eign in­flu­ence

Although Thursday’s Senate health committee hearing was focused on how foreign countries and adversaries might be trying to steal or negatively influence biomedical research in the US, the only country mentioned by the senators and expert witnesses was China.

Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) made clear in her opening remarks that the US cannot “let the few instances of bad actors” overshadow the hard work of the many immigrant researchers in the US, many of which have won Nobel prizes for their work. But she also said, “There is more the NIH can be doing here.”

Law pro­fes­sors call for FDA to dis­close all safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta for drugs

Back in early 2018 when Scott Gottlieb led the FDA, there was a moment when the agency seemed poised to release redacted complete response letters and other previously undisclosed data. But that initiative never gained steam.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers are finding that a dearth of public data on clinical trials and pharmaceuticals means industry and the FDA cannot be held accountable, two law professors from Yale and New York University write in an article published Wednesday in the California Law Review.

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JP Gabriel, Ocugen

JP Gabriel watched from the bleach­ers as the pan­dem­ic raged. Now head of sup­ply chain at Ocu­gen, he's ready to bat

The world was in the middle of the most pressing public health risk his generation had ever seen, and JP Gabriel felt like he was sitting on the sidelines. As a VP of biologics and mRNA manufacturing at Ultragenyx, Gabriel watched from the sidelines as players like Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna used mRNA tech to chase their own Covid-19 vaccines.

This month, Gabriel got the chance to get his hands dirty against the pandemic — but it won’t be with mRNA.

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Novavax CEO Stanley Erck at the White House in 2020 (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

As fears mount over J&J and As­traZeneca, No­vavax en­ters a shaky spot­light

As concerns rise around the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, global attention is increasingly turning to the little, 33-year-old, productless, bankruptcy-flirting biotech that could: Novavax.

In the now 16-month race to develop and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, Novavax has at times seemed like the pandemic’s most unsuspecting frontrunner and at times like an overhyped also-ran. Although they started the pandemic with only enough cash to last 6 months, they leveraged old connections and believers into $2 billion and emerged last summer with data experts said surpassed Pfizer and Moderna. They unveiled plans to quickly scale to 2 billion doses. Then they couldn’t even make enough material to run their US trial and watched four other companies beat them to the finish line.

FDA of­fers scathing re­view of Emer­gent plan­t's san­i­tary con­di­tions, em­ploy­ee train­ing af­ter halt­ing pro­duc­tion

The FDA wrapped up its inspection of Emergent’s troubled vaccine manufacturing plant in Baltimore on Tuesday, after halting production there on Monday. By Wednesday morning, the agency already released a series of scathing observations on the cross contamination, sanitary issues and lack of staff training that caused the contract manufacturer to dispose of millions of AstraZeneca and J&J vaccine doses.

Brad Bolzon (Versant)

Ver­sant pulls the wraps off of near­ly $1B in 3 new funds out to build the next fleet of biotech star­tups. And this new gen­er­a­tion is built for speed

Brad Bolzon has an apology to offer by way of introducing a set of 3 new funds that together pack a $950 million wallop in new biotech creation and growth.

“I want to apologize,” says the Versant chairman and managing partner, laughing a little in the intro, “that we don’t have anything fancy or flashy to tell you about our new fund. Same team, around the same amount of capital, same investment strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But then there’s the flip side, where everything has changed. Or at least speeded into a relative blur. Here’s Bolzon:

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Covid-19 man­u­fac­tur­ing roundup: Mary­land looks to grow biotech ca­pac­i­ty with $400M check; Rus­sia lands sec­ond Sput­nik V part­ner this week

A Maryland real estate project has added three new biotech-focused manufacturing and research buildings to an office park to keep up with demand created by the pandemic, the Washington Business Journal reported.

The Milestone Business Park — located off of I-270 in Germantown, MD — will see the new buildings and a total of 532,000 square feet as the campus rebrands to Milestone Innovation Park.

Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures)

Ear­ly Zymer­gen in­vestor Jen­ny Rooke re­flects on 'chimeras' in biotech, what it takes to spot a $500M gem

When Jenny Rooke first heard of Zymergen back in 2014, she knew she was looking at something different and exciting. The Emeryville, CA biotech held the promise of blending biology and technology to solve a huge unmet need for cost-effective chemicals — of all things — and a stellar founding team to boot.

But back then, West Coast venture capitalists didn’t see in Zymergen the one thing they were looking for in a winning biotech: therapeutic potential. Rooke, however, saw an opportunity and made her bets. Seven years later, that bet is paying off in a big way.

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