Novartis (NYSE:NVS) has inked a deal with the University of Pennsylvania to invest $20 million to develop a stand-alone research and development center at the university to commercialize novel cellular immunotherapies for cancer that will create at least 100 jobs. The move is the largest academic-industry agreement of its kind for Penn to date, according to a spokeswoman for the university.
The licensing deal with the Swiss pharmaceutical company gives Novartis exclusive worldwide license to the technologies used in an ongoing trial of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and future chimeric antigen receptor-based therapies developed through the collaboration. In addition to the research center, Novartis will invest in the future research of the technology. The deal will also give Penn additional milestone and royalty payments.
The move follows a major discovery by a team of researchers at Penn last year that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in which white blood cells from patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia were extracted and then the engineered T-cells were injected into the patients. Among the findings, two patients remained in remission more than a year after their treatments. It was the first successful, sustained demonstration of the use of gene transfer therapy to create T-cells aimed at battling cancerous tumors, the statement said.
The discovery paves the way for studies that have the potential to expand the use of chimeric antigen therapies for other forms of cancer.
Bloomberg reported that Novartis was one of three pharmaceutical companies to negotiate with the university, but Novartis was aided by its experience with a chronic myeloid leukemia drug Gleevac.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Dr. Carl June, who led the research team, said he never imagined a pharmaceutical company would take on “ultra-personalized medicine.”
“I never thought this would happen, that the pharma industry would get into ultra-personalized therapy,” June said in a telephone interview. ’We had lots of venture capital interest, but it’s hard to be a new company and it takes time to get set up. The fastest route to widespread availability is to use an existing company.”
The move reflects a continued trend of pharmaceutical companies working with universities on research and development to shore up drug development pipelines following industrywide cuts to in-house R&D teams. On the other hand, universities get a useful way to move forward with novel concepts and de-risk these projects. Osage University Partners, a venture capital investment firm that invests in university startups, assembled a useful guide to publicly disclosed pharmaceutical-university collaborations since 2008 on its blog. The only one Novartis had predating its deal with Penn has been with Harvard to use stem cells to develop therapeutics for neuromuscular disorders.
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