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Regeneron expands immuno-oncology push with Bluebird pact

Dive Brief:

  • Regeneron is broadening its research bets in immuno-oncology, partnership with Bluebird bio that will pair the New York biotech’s antibody prowess with Bluebird’s cell therapy and gene transfer expertise.
  • The two companies will focus on developing cancer therapies that leverage a type of cellular targeting technology known as T cell receptors (TCRs), as well as more established antibody technology, to target tumor-specific proteins.
  • Regeneron and Bluebird together have selected six targets to advance toward an Investigational New Drug Application under the initial five-year term of the collaboration. R&D costs will be split equally and, per deal terms, Regeneron will own the right to opt in to a further co-development agreement after an IND is submitted.

Dive Insight:

Regeneron looks intent to make a mark in immuno-oncology, despite rivals’ long leads in the fast-growing space.

The biotech is currently awaiting a verdict from the Food and Drug Administration on its PD-1 inhibitor cemiplimab, which it developed in collaboration with the French pharma Sanofi. If approved, cemiplimab would be the sixth checkpoint blocker targeting the PD-1/L1 pathway to reach markets.

Expectations for the drug are mixed, given the competition, but Regeneron and Sanofi believe they can stand out. Cemiplimab’s first target is a type of skin cancer known as cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma, which no PD-1/L1 inhibitor is approved to treat.

​With the Bluebird deal, Regeneron expands its footprint in cell therapy research, too. Alongside checkpoint inhibitors, cancer cell therapies such as CAR-T have emerged as a promising and fruitful field of research for certain cancers.

So far, however, CAR-T’s has proved most effective in certain blood cancers, leukemia and lymphoma being foremost. Finding new targets for the souped-up T cells to latch onto will be crucial to expanding cell therapy to new cancer types.

That’s where TCRs could play a greater role. While sharing similarities with CAR-T technology, TCRs are thought to be more capable of seeking out tumor-specific antigens expressed on the inside of cancer cells as well as the outside.

Regeneron has developed a technology platform dubbed Veloci-T that it says can create TCRs against tumor antigens. The companies plan to combine that with Bluebird’s experience in using lentiviral vectors to genetically modify T cells to attack tumors.

Regeneron will back up its interest with a $100 million investment in Bluebird common stock, paying a 59% premium over Friday’s closing price of $150 per share. The $37 million premium that represents will be credited toward Regeneron’s share of funding for basic collaboration research.

Investors in Bluebird appeared pleased with the arrangement, sending shares in the company nearly 4% higher in Monday morning trading. Regeneron, on the other hand, traded down by about 1%.

For Regeneron, questions have grown about the performance of its drugs outside of its blockbuster eye treatment Eylea (aflibercept). Second-quarter results reported last week quelled some investor jitters over the company’s new dermatitis drug Dupixent (dupilumab), but Regeneron still has to prove it can deliver on blockbuster hopes.

Securing approval of cemiplimab — expected by October — would give Regeneron a foothold in immuno-oncology. But, like its other recent approvals, the challenge will be translating research success into commercial breakouts.