In stag­ger­ing set­back, tox­ic re­ac­tion kills Cel­lec­tis’ first CAR-T pa­tient, forc­ing tri­al halt

The FDA has forced Cel­lec­tis $CLLS to slam the brakes on two clin­i­cal tri­als of its off-the-shelf ver­sion of a CAR-T ther­a­py af­ter their first pa­tient was killed by a lethal­ly tox­ic re­ac­tion to treat­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to the biotech, which is based in Paris with R&D op­er­a­tions in New York, a 78-year-old pa­tient suf­fer­ing from blas­tic plas­ma­cy­toid den­drit­ic cell neo­plasm (BPD­CN) died eight days af­ter re­ceiv­ing the biotech’s first dose of the cell ther­a­py. He ex­pe­ri­enced a lethal re­ac­tion as cy­tokine re­lease syn­drome hit, along with a grade 4 case of cap­il­lary leak syn­drome. A sep­a­rate study which al­so treat­ed one pa­tient is un­der­way for acute myeloid leukemia.

The com­pa­ny’s stock was ham­mered by the bad news, drop­ping about 30% in pre-mar­ket trad­ing and shed­ding more than $400 mil­lion of its mar­ket cap.

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, nei­ther of the first two pa­tients treat­ed with UCART123 ex­pe­ri­enced graft ver­sus host dis­ease, one of the chief fears in­volved in an al­lo­gene­ic ther­a­py that takes do­nat­ed pa­tient cells then adapts them in­to a ready-to-use ther­a­py, by­pass­ing a com­plex step re­quired by the first CAR-Ts.

The FDA ap­proved the first per­son­al­ized CAR-T from No­var­tis just days ago, and Kite is ex­pect­ed to get an OK of its own soon. But the move by the FDA to slap a hold on these off-the-shelf ther­a­pies rais­es a host of thorny ques­tions for Cel­lec­tis.

Juno $JUNO was al­so forced to halt a study of its lead CAR-T last year — one of the pi­o­neer­ing au­tol­o­gous ver­sions that ex­tracts pa­tient cells and then adapts them be­fore re­in­fus­ing them in­to pa­tients — af­ter pa­tients died from cere­bral ede­ma. Then in an as­ton­ish­ing­ly short pe­ri­od of just a few days, reg­u­la­tors agreed to let re­searchers pro­ceed with the piv­otal tri­al af­ter a ques­tion­able change-up in the pre­con­di­tion­ing reg­i­men used to pre­pare pa­tients for the cell ther­a­py. Al­most im­me­di­ate­ly af­ter treat­ment re­sumed, three more pa­tients died fol­lowed by a tri­al halt and the sub­se­quent de­ci­sion to scrap a drug Juno and the FDA clear­ly didn’t com­plete­ly un­der­stand.

An­dre Chouli­ka

Will that dead­ly mis­take by reg­u­la­tors force them to be ex­tra sen­si­tive to this quick and ear­ly death in the UCART123 stud­ies? Or will reg­u­la­tors be quick to green-light this new ther­a­py back in­to the study, con­fi­dent that years of treat­ing CRS — a com­mon re­ac­tion among pa­tients re­ceiv­ing CAR-T ther­a­py — can be man­aged?

Cel­lec­tis spelled out the down­ward spi­ral ex­pe­ri­enced by its first pa­tient.

About a week ago, Cel­lec­tis re­ports, the da­ta safe­ty mon­i­tor­ing board sug­gest­ed low­er­ing the dose — to 6.25×104 UCART123 cells per kilo­gram — in both stud­ies and cap­ping cy­clophos­phamide to a to­tal dose of 4g over three days. But the FDA fol­lowed up by de­mand­ing a halt to the BPD­CN study along with the sep­a­rate study on acute myeloid leukemia, which has al­so seen one pa­tient treat­ed. That pa­tient ex­pe­ri­enced a grade 3 case of CRS and a grade 4 case of cap­il­lary leak syn­drome — both of which re­solved with­in a few days.

Cap­il­lary leak syn­drome is a con­di­tion in which leaky blood ves­sels can cause a po­ten­tial­ly lethal drop in blood pres­sure.

In the ab­sence of any sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion, in­vestors like Biren Amin at Jef­feries spec­u­lat­ed on caus­es and de­fects. His note:

We think there is a chance that CRS events could be mit­i­gat­ed up­on low­er­ing the dose of UCART123 be­yond the DSMB rec­om­men­da­tion and treat­ing CRS symp­toms more ag­gres­sive­ly, al­though ul­ti­mate­ly we look to more in­for­ma­tion. These events may be par­tial­ly due to the UCART123 cells be­ing from a healthy donor but, giv­en the dearth of da­ta, we think CLLS needs to ap­proach through a more holis­tic ap­proach and utliliz­ing key re­search on safe­ty from au­tol­o­gous CAR-T tri­als over the last 3-4 years. How­ev­er, we be­lieve the Grd 3 in­fec­tion (po­ten­tial­ly a re­sult of a neu­tropenic state) and Grd 4 CLS events have the po­ten­tial to be tar­get spe­cif­ic. For the lat­ter, we note that sAEs in­volv­ing CLS has been re­port­ed for Stem­line’s (STML, NC) CD123-di­rect­ed SL-401 ther­a­peu­tic. It’s un­clear if CLLS al­so re­quired pa­tients in their stud­ies to have nor­mal ejec­tion frac­tions and cer­tain pre-spec­i­fied al­bu­min lev­els at time of study en­try.

Cel­lec­tis will get ham­mered by in­vestors to­day, par­tic­u­lar­ly as the en­thu­si­asm for all things CAR-T seen in the past few days has swelled every­one’s stock price. Cel­lec­tis shares have soared past the $32 mark. The safe­ty is­sue will chal­lenge CEO An­dré Chouli­ka, a fierce and un­abashed pro­po­nent of all things Cel­lec­tis.

“Cel­lec­tis is the first com­pa­ny do­ing CAR-T,” he told me dur­ing an in­ter­view at AS­CO two years ago. “We are the first gene edit­ing com­pa­ny in the world,” dat­ing back to 1999. “There was no gene edit­ing be­fore us; we are the lead­ers.”

To­day, Cel­lec­tis and Chouli­ka will be lead­ing a charge to re­solve their biggest chal­lenge to date. It won’t be easy.

A new chap­ter in the de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal tri­al ap­proach

Despite the promised decentralized trial revolution, we haven’t yet moved the needle in a significant way, although we are seeing far bolder commitments to this as we continue to experience the pandemic restrictions for some time to come. The vision of grandeur is one thing, but operationalizing and execution are another and recognising that change, particularly mid-flight on studies, is worthy of thorough evaluation and consideration in order to achieve success. Here we will discuss one of the critical building blocks of a Decentralized and Remote Trial strategy: TeleConsent; more than paper under glass, it is a paradigm change and key digital enabler.

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Daniel O'Day, Gilead CEO (Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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