Innovations Advanced by M&A: An Innovative CAR-T Therapy for Blood Cancer

Jun 5, 2024 | Blog Post, Innovations Advanced by M&A

This blog is another installment in a series, Innovations Advanced by M&A, that underscores the importance of mergers and acquisitions in ensuring a competitive and vibrant biopharmaceutical landscape for patients. You can find previous blogs in this series here

Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are critical to helping companies navigate the long and costly journey to develop a promising scientific concept into a new medicine. In the case of Breyanzi, the merger between Juno Therapeutics and Celgene allowed the two companies to combine their complementary resources and expertise and secure the investment required to bring a novel chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy for advanced forms of blood cancer to patients more quickly.

Juno Therapeutics was founded in 2013 in Seattle, and was spun out from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Children’s Hospital, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to pursue novel approaches to treat blood cancers. By leveraging considerable scientific expertise and substantial outside investment, Juno emerged as a leader in developing CAR-T therapies. CAR-T therapies had shown early-stage promise as a new treatment option for advanced cancers; however, they were considered a relatively untested frontier at the time. These complex breakthrough therapies use a modified version of a patient’s own white blood cells to activate a potent immune response and destroy cancer cells.

Although Juno quickly developed an innovative pipeline of promising CAR-T cancer treatments, costly clinical trial setbacks threatened to prevent their transformative science from reaching patients. As Juno looked to overcome these challenges, the company narrowed its focus to just one investigational therapy, Breyanzi, for patients with refractory diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL). DLBCL is an aggressive form of lymphoma affecting as many as 18,000 people in the U.S. each year. Although 65% of patients diagnosed with the disease survive five years after their diagnosis, the median life expectancy for patients who do not respond to first-line chemotherapies was just 6 months as recently as 2017. To connect Breyanzi with the resources and infrastructure needed to bring it to market, Juno merged with Celgene in 2018.

“The people at Juno channel their passion for science and patients towards a common goal of finding cures by creating cell therapies that help people live longer, better lives. Continuing this work will take scientific prowess, manufacturing excellence and global reach. This union will provide all three.”

Hans Bishop, Chief Executive Officer, Juno Therapeutics

Three years later, in 2021, Breyanzi was approved to treat refractory DLBCL and brought new hope in the form of a new treatment option to the thousands of patients affected by this life-threatening disease. Through Juno’s merger with Celgene, and Celgene’s subsequent acquisition by BMS, thousands more patients with blood cancer have benefitted from treatment with Breyanzi. Breyanzi was later approved to treat other blood cancers including follicular lymphoma and is the first and only CAR-T therapy to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia and small lymphocytic lymphoma.

“Today’s approval represents another milestone in the rapidly progressing field of gene therapy by providing an additional treatment option for adults with certain types of cancer affecting the blood, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. Gene and cell therapies have evolved from promising concepts to practical cancer treatment regimens.”

– Dr. Peter Marks, Director, FDA Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research

The merger also helped open the floodgates of life sciences investment in the Puget Sound region. By serving as a model to translate the region’s scientific prowess into cutting-edge therapies – and allowing investors to recoup the considerable investments that make these new therapies possible – Juno has served as a model for other biotech companies to start up and pursue new innovations. As a result, Seattle’s life sciences industry is increasingly defined by vibrant competition to develop new cell and gene therapies and immuno-oncology treatments for patients, and has emerged as a significant employer and catalyst for regional economic growth.

Breyanzi demonstrates the fundamental role that M&A plays in allowing life sciences companies to “pass the baton,” and access the resources, infrastructure and investment needed to develop and deliver potentially transformative new therapies to market. Accordingly, it is critical that policymakers take a balanced and bipartisan approach to M&A and avoid impeding companies’ ability to bring life-changing new medicines to patients.