Self-driving CARs

Why Pfizer and other large companies think CAR T technology needs its independence

Novartis AG, Gilead Sciences Inc. and now Pfizer Inc. have taken different approaches to managing their CAR T cell assets, but the three companies appear to be converging on the notion that developing the technology requires a level of autonomy that is unavailable within the traditional biopharma operating model.

Each has chosen to house its CAR T cell pipelines in an entity that operates independently of the rest of its pharmaceutical operations.

Novartis, an early adopter of the modality, also was the first to decide it needed to be managed differently from small molecules or biologics. The pharma set up a dedicated cell and gene therapy unit in 2014, just as Kymriah tisagenlecleucel was about to enter a pivotal Phase II study. The pharma later folded the unit into its Novartis oncology business, which operates separately from the larger pharmaceuticals unit.

When Gilead acquired Kite Pharma Inc. last October, it took a similar decision, allowing the biotech to operate as an independent business unit.

Pfizer decided a greater degree of separation was necessary for the off-the-shelf CAR T cell therapies it was developing using TALEN gene editing technology from Cellectis S.A. The pharma announced April 3 that it would spin out the portfolio into newco Allogene Therapeutics Inc.

Both Novartis’ decision to fold cell and gene therapy into its oncology unit, and Pfizer’s decision to spin its CAR T portfolio out led analysts and investors to wonder aloud whether the pharmas were retreating from the technology.

But it appears that

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