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.

Nick Galakatos, Blackstone global head of life sciences

Nick Galakatos and the Black­stone team now have a record $4.6B to in­vest in bio­phar­ma, with a big fo­cus on push­ing com­pa­nies over the top

Nick Galakatos and his team at Blackstone Life Sciences have seen their biggest opportunities swell up in mostly established players who don’t have all the money they need to accomplish everything on the to-do list. And right now, with the industry booming, that’s a long list with some hefty needs.

The Blackstone team has neatly tied up the largest private fund ever raised in life sciences for making big dreams come true in biopharma. Late Thursday, Blackstone put out word that they had closed their highly anticipated fund with the projected $4.6 billion all in.

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UP­DAT­ED: Bio­gen shares spike as ex­ecs com­plete a de­layed pitch for their con­tro­ver­sial Alzheimer's drug — the next move be­longs to the FDA

Biogen is stepping out onto the high wire today, reporting that the team working on the controversial Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab has now completed their submission to the FDA. And they want the agency to bless it with a priority review that would cut the agency’s decision-making time to a mere 6 months.

The news drove a 10% spike in Biogen’s stock $BIIB ahead of the bell.

Part of that spike can be attributed to a relief rally. Biogen execs rattled backers and a host of analysts earlier in the year when they unexpectedly delayed their filing to the third quarter. That delay provoked all manner of speculation after CEO Michel Vounatsos and R&D chief Al Sandrock failed to persuade influential observers that the pandemic and other factors had slowed the timeline for filing. Actually making the pitch at least satisfies skeptics that the FDA was not likely pushing back as Biogen was pushing in. From the start, Biogen execs claimed that they were doing everything in cooperation with the FDA, saying that regulators had signaled their interest in reviewing the submission.

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Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer speaks at a meeting with President Donald Trump, members of the Coronavirus Task Force, and pharmaceutical executives in the Cabinet Room of the White House (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

OWS shifts spot­light to drugs to fight Covid-19, hand­ing Re­gen­eron $450M to be­gin large scale man­u­fac­tur­ing in the US

The US government is on a spending spree. And after committing billions to vaccines defense operations are now doling out more of the big bucks through Operation Warp Speed to back a rapid flip of a drug into the market to stop Covid-19 from ravaging patients — possibly inside of 2 months.

The beneficiary this morning is Regeneron, the big biotech engaged in a frenzied race to develop an antibody cocktail called REGN-COV2 that just started a late-stage program to prove its worth in fighting the virus. BARDA and the Department of Defense are awarding Regeneron a $450 million contract to cover bulk delivery of the cocktail starting as early as late summer, with money added for fill/finish and storage activities.

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An­oth­er four biotechs scratch out the first num­ber and ask for more as IPO boom con­tin­ues

Four more biotechs are raising their offers in an already record year for biotech IPOs.

Softbank-backed Relay Therapeutics scratched out its original $200 million filing and proposed a $250 million raise that would make them a $1.5 billion company. CAR-T developer Poseida Therapeutics bumped itself up $74 million to $224 million. Off-the-shelf cell therapy startup Nkarta upped from $150 million to $215 million — and then priced even higher, at $252 million. France’s Inventiva did its own modest reset, raising its bar from $102 million to $108 million.

Top biotech an­a­lyst projects a gloomy out­look for Pfiz­er's JAK port­fo­lio

Many in the pharma world are hoping — better yet, expecting — JAK inhibitors to provide one of the next big boons for the industry. Few have invested as heavily in this area as Pfizer, which boasts a portfolio including Xeljanz and at least five mid-to-late stage candidates in the pipeline.

But a top Wall Street analyst is pumping the brakes on just how much good fortune is in store for the Big Pharma.

Gilead boasts of pos­i­tive remde­sivir da­ta on mor­tal­i­ty — but their analy­sis pro­vokes the skep­tics

Gilead is surging again off data that suggest its antiviral remdesivir might improve survival.

The new data come from an analysis Gilead conducted comparing the death rate and recovery time of patients in one of its remdesivir trials to a group of 800 patients “with similar baseline characteristics and disease severity” who received only standard-of-care around the same time. The result, they said, suggested that patients who received remdesivir had a 62% better chance at surviving than those who did not.

Hal Barron, GSK

Win or lose on the mar­ket­ing OK, the FDA just gunned down GSK’s bright hopes for their BC­MA ther­a­py

The FDA’s ODAC — the Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee — has a well-known bias in favor of adding new cancer drugs to the market, even if efficacy is at best marginal and serious safety issues demand careful management.

Doctors want as many arrows in their quiver as they can get. And when patients are dying after failing multiple drugs, why not give it a go one more time?

GlaxoSmithKline, though, is about to test out how their new BCMA antibody drug conjugate belantamab mafodotin can do after being mauled in an in-house FDA review, ahead of the Tuesday expert panel discussion. Even if the agency goes ahead with an expected green light, this drug will likely be constrained to a small niche — icing any plans they may have for making waves in oncology anytime soon.

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Covid-19 roundup: BioN­Tech go­ing head-to-head with Mod­er­na as PhI­II mR­NA launch looms; Tri­al on Shin­zo Abe’s once-fa­vorite an­tivi­ral is in­con­clu­sive

It’s a race to the Phase III finish line now for the 2 leading mRNA vaccines in the pipeline for Covid-19.

BioNTech chief Ugur Sahin told the Wall Street Journal that his company will start Phase III testing of their vaccine later this month, setting them up to lateral the data to regulators before the end of this year.

That puts them essentially on the exact same schedule as Moderna is dedicated to. The Massachusetts rival to BioNTech also expects to launch Phase III this month. Lots of rumors have circulated about delays and conflict among the scientists advancing the Moderna jab, but the biotech has consistently stuck to its plan to start a late-stage pivotal this month.

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Andrew Kruegel, Kures president and co-founder (Columbia Tech Ventures via Vimeo)

Af­ter psilo­cy­bin and ke­t­a­mine, a new biotech comes along de­vel­op­ing a drug Scott Got­tlieb fought

Andrew Kruegel was six years into his chemistry work at Columbia University, when, one day in August 2016, he learned he might have only 30 days before the government made him destroy his research.

Kruegel had been studying kratom, a leaf long used in Southeast Asia as a stimulant or for pain. It had opioid-like properties, he found, but seemed to offer pain relief without the addictive potential or respiratory side effects of traditional opioids — a riddle that might help illuminate how human opioid receptors work.

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