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Juno Acquires Biotech, Licenses Cell Sequencing Tech

Human T-cell lymphocyte

Scanning electron micrograph of a human T-cell lymphocyte (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH)

11 January 2016. Juno Therapeutics is gaining single-cell sequencing technology for cancer immunotherapies through the buy-out of biotechnology company AbVitro Inc., and licensing part of that technology to pharmaceutical company Celgene Corp. The AbVitro acquisition is valued at about $125 million, while financial details of the licensing deal with Celgene are not disclosed.

Juno Therapeutics, in Seattle, is a spin-off enterprise from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and Seattle Children’s Research Institute, founded in 2013. The company employs two technologies to encourage white blood cells in the immune system, known as T-cells, to target invading cancer cells without damaging healthy tissue. One process genetically modifies T-cells with molecules called chimeric antigen receptors to better identify and attack cancer cells on their own, without invoking immune-system signals that could target non-cancerous cells.

The second technique, known as T-cell receptors, also reprograms T-cells by adding molecules known as human leukocyte antigens that target corresponding proteins in tumors. The company harvests blood cells from cancer patients and separates their T cells for enrichment with the required genetic sequences in the cells’ DNA, then grown in the lab into dosage quantities for infusion back into the patient. In the body, the engineered T-cells multiply in the presence of target proteins and attack their corresponding tumor cells.

AbVitro, in Boston, is a spin-off company from the Harvard Medical School lab of geneticist and genomics pioneer George Church, a co-founder of the company. Its technology harnesses high-throughput genomic sequencing of millions of tumor and blood cells to identify antigen and T-cell receptors for cancer immunotherapies. This simultaneous, paired identification process, says AbVitro, makes it possible to highlight specific cancer targets and develop more effective therapies with binding molecules that recognize those targets.

Through the acquisition, Juno says it plans to continue development of AbVitro’s cancer immunotherapies, as well as adapt the technology for better tests of immune system responses to cancer, and to track the treatment of patients receiving immunotherapies. Under the deal, AbVitro shareholders receive $78 million in cash, and 1.3 million shares of Juno stock, valued at about $47 million. AbVitro staff are expected to relocate to Seattle, and company founder Church will become an advisor to Juno.

Celgene Corp., in Summit, New Jersey, and Juno are already collaborators on two of Juno’s therapy candidates for blood-related cancers, with Juno gaining access to Celgene’s T-cell programs, in a $1 billion licensing deal last June, reported in Science & Enterprise. Under the new agreement, Celgene receives rights to a subset of the acquired AbVitro single-cell sequencing technology, as well as options on products developed from that technology.

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