Things are a little on edge in Seattle’s biotech scene after the Jan. 3 announcement that pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) intends to buy Celgene, the parent company of Juno Therapeutics, in one of the industry’s largest acquisitions ever.
The $74 billion cash-and-stock buyout has the potential to accelerate the development of new treatments in areas such as cancer immunotherapy, Juno’s expertise, but the long-term effect on biotech employment in the Seattle region is less clear.
Juno, which spun out of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 2013, employed more than 500 people, about 350 of them in Seattle, when it moved into its custom-built headquarters in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood in September 2017. A few months later, in January 2018, Celgene acquired Juno in a $9 billion deal. The New Jersey-based biotech company continues to operate Juno’s Seattle R&D space and its manufacturing facility in nearby Bothell, Wash.
Now, the planned acquisition of Celgene is creating new uncertainty. Said a Bristol-Myers Squibb spokesperson in an email, “There are many details yet to be worked out as part of the integration planning process. We will combine the best of both organizations as it relates to processes and people.”
The combined portfolio of Bristol-Myers Squibb and Celgene includes nine drugs, each with over $1 billion in annual sales – including the cancer drug Opdivo, a ‘checkpoint inhibitor’ from Bristol-Myers Squibb, designed to boost the immune response against cancer cells. The deal also will combine two complementary treatment pipelines.
“The deal is really about science, innovation and the pipeline,” said Giovanni Caforio, CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb, in a presentation Jan. 7 at the JP Morgan Global Healthcare Conference in San Diego. The pipeline includes two lead experimental treatments for blood cancers that deploy CAR (Chimeric Antigen Receptor) T-cell therapies, one being co-developed by Celgene and Bluebird Bio, based in Cambridge, Mass., and the other at Juno.
CAR T-cell therapies involve modifying a patient’s immune cells to attack tumors. Celgene’s top CAR T-cell candidate, liso-cel (also called JCAR017), is being tested against several blood cancers. The company also has several other cell-based therapies under development against different molecular targets and for various cancers.
Cell therapy is “an area I’m really excited about,” said Caforio in the presentation.
The melding of Celgene and Bristol-Myers Squibb also has the potential to spark new treatment approaches, including combining potentially complimentary drugs in the companies’ pipelines. For instance, some researchers see promise in combining CAR T-cell therapies with Opdivo or other checkpoint inhibitors. BMS has several checkpoint inhibitors in development against different targets.
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“It has become a hot thing to do, particularly in the cancer immunotherapy space, to do combinations,” said William Watt, co-founder of EpiThany, a Seattle-based biotech company focused on cancer vaccines. BMS also will bring deep experience moving treatments forward to the clinic, with its strong infrastructure for clinical trials and marketing, said Watt. “One of the things BMS has is horsepower in clinical and translational development,” added Watt.
The deal could take much of the year to close, while Celgene and BMS operate as separate companies.
Big drug industry buyouts often shutter smaller operations. That is a fate that biotech companies in Seattle, which lacks a strong pharmaceutical anchor tenant, seem to meet with regularity. Amgen, which had acquired Immunex in 2002, closed its Seattle operation in 2015. And in 2016, BMS announced the closure of operations in the South Lake Union area at the former home of Zymogenetics, which BMS had acquired in 2010.
But not every acquisition is the same, noted Leslie Alexandre, President & CEO at Life Science Washington (and a GeekWire Geek of the Week). Though she is wary of making projections, Alexandre said that Seattle’s robust scientific infrastructure in cellular therapies could provide incentive for BMS to keep immunotherapy operations in Seattle.
Local research institutions such as Fred Hutch and Seattle Children’s Research Institute, involved in spinning out Juno, provide a steady source of new ideas for the field, as will the new Allen Institute for Immunology. And several other cell-based companies contribute to a critical mass of talent and resources, such as Nohla Therapeutics and newly-launched Sana Biotechnology, co-founded by Hans Bishop, former CEO of Juno.
“I think we have something special here for cellular therapy for immuno-oncology,” added William Canestaro, managing director at the Washington Research Foundation (also a Geek of the Week). “There are not unlimited places in the world where you can get that.”
If Celgene’s operations stay in Seattle, smaller immuno-oncology companies will continue to thrive in the local biotech ecosystem. EpiThany, for instance is a company that would naturally look for a larger partner, said Canestaro.
The biotech has several cancer vaccines in clinical trial. “The prospect of combining them with the drugs that they have is so attractive,” said Watt. Pitching and executing such a collaboration would be made easier by proximity, said Watt. “Especially in immuno-oncology you need to have synergistic technologies available to you, and that comes from other companies.”
But in the end, if Celgene’s operations are funneled off to another region, many of its employees would likely stay in the Seattle area and contribute to the formation of new companies. Said Alexandre, “You release talent often when there are these sorts of acquisitions, and thankfully in our community our talent wants to stay.”