With PD-1 OK looming, Regeneron antes $100M on bluebird alliance for next-gen TCR cell therapy pact

Sometime in the next few months, we’re likely to see the FDA come through with an approval for the world’s 6th PD-1/L1 checkpoint inhibitor from Regeneron $REGN and its longtime development partners at Sanofi. But now the fast-growing Regeneron is also allying itself with bluebird bio $BLUE, putting up $100 million in equity cash on a 50/50 development deal aimed at creating a new pipeline of cell therapies with an eye to expanding the horizon in oncology with a new set of T cell receptor targets.

The top scientists at bluebird and Regeneron took time Sunday to preview a deal that moves the smaller company well past the BCMA program it has put in the spotlight, while the antibody development experts at Regeneron work their tech platform for 6 undisclosed targets used to kick off the 5-year alliance.

The market loved the idea, sending bluebird’s shares up 7% in pre-market trading.

In a typical alliance involving a bigger company, says Regeneron R&D chief George Yancopoulos, making a strenuous effort to distinguish this deal from the pack, you see a dominant player looking to add a particular kind of experimental drug to the pipeline.

This isn’t that kind of deal.

“When I say we’re interested in bluebird bio,” says the Regeneron co-founder, “it wasn’t for any particular candidate.”

Philip Gregory

Instead, says bluebird CSO Phil Gregory, this is about a CAR-T and gene therapy expert, bluebird, allying itself with a company that makes “the best binders that exist.”

“Both companies are entirely all in,” from the CEO on down, adds Yancopoulos with all the intensity the industry has come to expect from one of the most productive — and best paid — R&D directors in the industry. “This is a major focus for us.”

Regeneron originated the idea, he adds, and made it happen with a $100 million upfront for an equity stake in bluebird, with a hefty premium built in to bluebird’s already considerable stock price.  But it’s not splurging. Regeneron’s price bakes in a $37 million premium, which will be used to pay for its first round of research costs in the partnership.

For Regeneron and bluebird, it’s a chance to considerably widen the horizon of cell therapy targets — adding a variety of intracellular TCR targets. And bluebird fattens a cash reserve that was recently built up with a whopping $632 million raise, as it looks to transition to a commercial stage with an upcoming filing on β-thalassemia and more data for bb2121.

The partners built the terms for a marathon pact, running initially for 5 years but with terms that would allow them to continue to move on in creating a pipeline together. I asked the usual questions. What are the first targets? When will they make it to the clinic and into human patients?

Not surprisingly, those cards will remain close to the vest for now. But both companies are well known for a focus on products and performance. So it’s not an indefinite silence.

As both companies close in on the oncology market, where a myriad of contenders are looking to make their mark, they’re satisfied today that they are stronger together, than apart.

Image: George Yancopoulos. GETTY IMAGES

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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