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Bayer backs out of Atara cell therapy deal

Dive Brief:

  • Bayer plans stop developing cancer cell therapies with Atara Biotherapeutics, informing the California biotech company that it will terminate a research collaboration deal signed in late 2020.


  • As a result, Atara will regain in September the rights it licensed to Bayer, which had paid $60 million upfront to begin the partnership and promised as much as $610 million more if certain milestones were hit.


  • In a Thursday evening statement announcing Bayer’s decision, Atara said it remained confident in the two CAR-T therapies that the companies had advanced through their collaboration, and added that it would reassess its strategy on “how best to generate value” from the programs.

Dive Insight:

In December 2020, when Bayer and Atara announced their collaboration, the German drugmaker described it as a “fundamental element of Bayer’s new cell and gene therapy strategy.” The partnership added to a string of deals Bayer had done in the field, including the acquisitions of Bluerock Therapeutics and Asklepios BioPharmaceuticals.

Over the nearly 18 months since, however, Bayer has reconsidered its ties to Atara.

“We regularly review our pharmaceutical development projects to ensure we focus our resources on the assets where we believe we can make the most difference for patients,” a Bayer spokesperson said in an email to BioPharma Dive. “Following the latest evaluation, we decided not to pursue further development of the Atara mesothelin-targeting CAR-T cell therapy program.”

The spokesperson added that Bayer remains committed to “disruptive innovation,” including cell and gene therapies.

The two Atara cell therapies that were under development by Bayer are aimed at mesothelin, a protein target that’s expressed at high levels in certain cancers like mesothelioma and non-small cell lung cancer. But in February, a patient enrolled in a study of one of those therapies run by Memorial Sloan Kettering died, leading the New York hospital to pause enrollment.

Atara and Memorial Sloan Kettering plan to give an update on the study later this year, Atara said.

The focus for Atara in the near-term are its cell therapies for post-transplant lymphoproliferative disease and progressive multiple sclerosis. The former treatment is currently under review for approval by the European Medicines Agency, while Phase 2 trial data for the latter are expected in June.

“Bayer’s decision to end the licensing agreement for Atara’s mesothelin-CAR-T assets … is a disappointment, though we think investor attention is largely focused on the upcoming interim analysis for ATA188 in multiple sclerosis,” wrote Benjamin Burnett, an analyst at Stifel, in a May 20 note to clients.