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Hans Bishop
Juno Therapeutics CEO Hans Bishop speaking at the 2016 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

Seattle’s Juno Therapeutics, a biotech company developing cutting edge CAR T immunotherapies for cancer, faces a narrow field of competitors. Few other companies in the U.S. are working on CAR T therapies, and on Monday one of them, Kite Pharma, reached an agreement to be acquired by Gilead Sciences for a staggering $11.9 billion.

The deal is putting the spotlight on Juno, whose stock rose just over 40 percent in two days, sitting at $43.85 as of publishing. That’s the highest its stock has risen since the company announced a hold on its most advanced clinical trial in June of last year.

Kite Pharma is in line to have the first CAR T therapy on the market, and competitor Novartis is nipping at its heels. The procedures genetically engineer a patient’s T-cells, which find and destroy microscopic invaders in the body, so that the cells find and kill cancer.

Juno has struggled to keep pace in the race to market. Last year, one of its clinical trials was halted twice following two rounds of patient deaths, causing its stock to tumble. It pulled that treatment in March and is focusing on a more promising candidate that is farther behind in the clinical trial pipeline.

The company has a number of treatments currently being studied in clinical trials, all of which are in phase one or two of the three phases required to apply for FDA approval.

Although the field CAR T immunotherapy is based on decades of sound science — much of it researched at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center,  which Juno spun out of in 2013 — there are still many questions about the therapies and how they could be used at a large scale.

In some patients, the therapies produce almost miraculous results, beating back advanced cancer that other treatments couldn’t beat. But other patients don’t respond to the therapy at all and in some rare cases, like in the Juno trial, the treatments can have fatal side effects. Once the treatments make it onto the market, affordability is also a big concern.

So far, CAR T therapies have been most effective in treating blood cancers, including leukemia and lymphoma. Research is being done into how CAR T therapies could be used effectively to treat solid tumors, but that science is still years from making it to market.

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