Scoop: No­var­tis dis­bands its pi­o­neer­ing cell and gene ther­a­py unit

No­var­tis is dis­solv­ing its high-pro­file cell and gene ther­a­py unit op­er­at­ing un­der the guid­ing hand of Us­man “Oz” Azam, End­points has learned.

Us­man “Oz” Azam

Azam has is­sued a note to the 400 staffers in the group, which was ob­tained by End­points, that says:

“The risk of em­bark­ing on a new ad­ven­ture in un­chart­ed ter­ri­to­ry is that things don’t al­ways work out as en­vi­sioned. To­day, I have the un­for­tu­nate task of an­nounc­ing that we are dis­solv­ing the Cell and Gene Ther­a­pies Unit.”

No­var­tis con­firmed that the 400-mem­ber group is be­ing dis­band­ed, with most be­ing “re­de­ployed” to new po­si­tions while 120 could be left with­out a job.

That move is a stun­ner for many in the CAR-T field, es­pe­cial­ly af­ter all the hoopla at No­var­tis around its work.

Azam and his team have played point for one of No­var­tis’s biggest pipeline moves, jump­ing in ear­ly on CAR-T ther­a­pies that reengi­neer a pa­tient’s T cells in­to at­tack ve­hi­cles point­ed at can­cer cells. Work­ing through a part­ner­ship at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, the group has ad­vanced one of the lead­ing CAR-T ther­a­pies now in the pipeline, as it races against Kite $KITE and Juno $JUNO to be in the first wave of new drugs to hit the mar­ket.

The field has been mov­ing fast, but not al­ways for­ward. Juno ex­pe­ri­enced a brief in­ter­rup­tion for its lead pro­gram when the FDA im­posed a clin­i­cal hold for a few days that ul­ti­mate­ly de­railed its de­vel­op­ment sched­ule and de­layed any ap­pli­ca­tion un­til 2018. That leaves Kite and No­var­tis rac­ing to the FDA, with Kite plan­ning a sub­mis­sion lat­er this year.

At one point, No­var­tis CEO Joe Jimenez told re­porters that he had made out a blank check for its CAR-T work, de­ter­mined to pay what was nec­es­sary to get these drugs to the mar­ket as fast as pos­si­ble. In a re­cent let­ter to share­hold­ers, Jimenez high­light­ed the CAR-T work as a key part of its strat­e­gy for its on­col­o­gy R&D ef­fort. But in the midst of a heat­ed Phase III ri­val­ry, the phar­ma gi­ant be­lieves that an iso­lat­ed unit no longer makes sense. And that is like­ly to add to the im­pres­sion that No­var­tis is falling be­hind.

The news hit Kite and Juno as well, though. Shares of Juno dropped 5% Wednes­day morn­ing, with Kite down 4%.

In re­sponse to a query from End­points, a spokesper­son for No­var­tis is­sued the fol­low­ing state­ment:

“We have made the de­ci­sion to re-in­te­grate ac­tiv­i­ties con­duct­ed by the Cell & Gene Ther­a­pies Unit in­to the larg­er No­var­tis or­ga­ni­za­tion, as part of a nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion of our in­ter­nal or­ga­ni­za­tion­al de­sign. An iso­lat­ed Unit worked well un­der our pri­or Phar­ma Di­vi­sion struc­ture, but with a new in­te­grat­ed de­vel­op­ment mod­el, we can ef­fi­cient­ly ad­vance our work on CART as part of our fo­cus in im­muno-on­col­o­gy by rein­te­grat­ing the func­tions.

This or­ga­ni­za­tion­al change will not im­pact the plan to file CTL019 in pe­di­atric r/r ALL with the US FDA in ear­ly 2017 and with EMA lat­er in 2017.

Most as­so­ciates who were pre­vi­ous­ly ded­i­cat­ed to cell & gene ther­a­pies will now be re­de­ployed to ar­eas where they will share their knowl­edge and im­prove ex­e­cu­tion of nov­el ther­a­peu­tics in the im­munother­a­py space to bet­ter de­liv­er on our mis­sion to im­prove and ex­tend peo­ple’s lives.

These or­ga­ni­za­tion­al changes will im­pact ap­prox­i­mate­ly 120 po­si­tions across sev­er­al dif­fer­ent No­var­tis af­fil­i­ates.  No­var­tis is com­mit­ted to as­sist­ing in the place­ment of im­pact­ed as­so­ciates wher­ev­er ap­pro­pri­ate in­ter­nal op­por­tu­ni­ties may ex­ist and in treat­ing dis­placed as­so­ciates fair­ly and with dig­ni­ty.”

In a fol­lowup, No­var­tis added that the move to dis­solve the unit will not af­fect its col­lab­o­ra­tion with Penn.

No­var­tis and Penn have an ex­clu­sive glob­al col­lab­o­ra­tion to re­search, de­vel­op and com­mer­cial­ize CAR T cell ther­a­pies for the in­ves­ti­ga­tion­al treat­ment of can­cers. We con­tin­ue to work with Penn un­der the terms of our agree­ment and look for­ward to ad­vanc­ing CART ther­a­pies.

Scott Gottlieb, AP Images

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Gottlieb — one of the best connected execs in biopharma — knows this company well. As head of FDA he championed the use of real-world evidence to help guide drug developers and the agency in gaining greater efficiencies, which helped set up Aetion as a high-profile player in the game.

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