Sayonara Novartis: Ex-cell therapy chief challenges CAR-T leaders, moves to Carl June’s biotech startup
Three months after Novartis declared its big biotech experiment in cell therapies kaput and dissolved the 400-person unit, its former chief has now jumped ship to run a cell therapy upstart which he is already intimately familiar with.
Usman ‘Oz’ Azam has taken the helm of Tmunity Therapeutics in Philadelphia, which was founded by one of Penn’s star scientists, Carl June, with an eye to developing new, curative cell therapies. It launched in January with $10 million in backing from Penn Medicine, the academic medical center of the University of Pennsylvania, and Lilly Asia Ventures.
Azam gained a high profile in the Cell & Gene Therapies Unit at Novartis, right up until the pharma giant stunned virtually everyone in the field with its decision to shutter the operation, just months ahead of its first planned CAR-T filing. About 120 people were terminated and Novartis said at the time that Azam was leaving the pharma giant.
The first CAR-Ts have demonstrated some clear promise, but are also afflicted by severe safety issues and limitations to their use in solid tumors. Tmunity is part of a second wave of startups that will be challenging Novartis, Kite and Juno with new and better technologies that expect to improve safety and expand efficacy to new patient groups and new diseases outside of oncology.
“Oz brings the ideal skill set and breadth of perspective to Tmunity as we move our first T cell receptor and CAR programs toward the clinic,” said Carl H. June, MD, co-founder and chief scientific advisor of Tmunity Therapeutics. “Oz shares our vision to make Tmunity the global leader in transforming the latest insights about T cell biology and T cell engineering into potentially curative therapies for patients.”
“I have had the opportunity to pursue the development of novel drugs and biologics for nearly 20 years but I have never been more excited about the potential we have at Tmunity to make a significant contribution to the treatment of cancer, HIV, and autoimmune disease by delivering the promise of T cell medicine,” said Azam. “To do so, we are creating a business model that rapidly and seamlessly integrates research, translational medicine, manufacturing science, quality by design, clinical development, and customer centric approaches to foster further successful commercial adoption of cell and gene therapies.”