Dive Insight:

Making cell therapies is no easy task. Unlike small molecule pills, or even protein-based drugs, cell therapies consist of whole living cells, which are carefully modified to express specific target-seeking receptors and then multiplied many times over.

Even Novartis, which with Kymriah won the first U.S. approval of a CAR-T therapy, has repeatedly run into challenges making the treatment to its approved specifications.

For smaller biotechs, the challenge is great enough that many turn to contract manufacturers like Catalent and Lonza for help. Novartis, as the deal with Carisma suggests, seems to see an opportunity to offer similar services with the production capacity it’s built in Morris Plains and elsewhere.

For now, Novartis has kept a relatively low profile for its contract manufacturing ambitions, alluding to them only in announcements of previous deals with BioNTech, CureVac and Roche.

“As one of the world’s largest producers of medicines, Novartis can mobilize its manufacturing capacity in an efficient way on multiple fronts,” said Anton Gerdenitsch, head of contract manufacturing at Novartis Technical Operations, in a statement on the Carisma deal. The drugmaker next year will begin making Carisma’s experimental treatment, which is in early testing for solid tumors.

A website for Global Biotech Cooperations gives some sense of the services Novartis will offer, noting capabilities in microbial manufacturing, plasmid DNA and RNA, viral vectors and cell bank production. The business is already making money for Novartis, which recorded $108 million in contract manufacturing sales for 2021 after reclassifying from “other revenue.”

Novartis lists sites in the U.S., Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Slovenia and Singapore as part of its contract manufacturing network.

While the company is expanding contract manufacturing around biotech, cell therapies and genetic medicines, it’s also considering selling or splitting off its generic drug business Sandoz, which has struggled in recent years selling copycat pills.