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Engineered T-Cell Company Acquired for $11.9 Billion

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28 August 2017. A company developing personal cancer therapies that genetically engineer a patient’s immune system cells is being acquired in a deal valued at $11.9 billion. Gilead Sciences, a maker of biopharmaceutical drugs in Foster City, California is buying Santa Monica-based Kite Pharma, a pioneer in personalized therapies addressing both blood-related and solid tumor cancers.

Kite Pharma was founded in 2009 by urologist and cancer specialist Arie Belldegrun at UCLA medical center in Los Angeles. Much of the company’s technology uses a patient’s own T-cells, white blood cells from the immune system, genetically altered in the lab to add proteins — chimeric antigen receptors or T-cell receptors — to attack specific cancer cells, and then returned back to the patient. Belldegrun is the company’s CEO and board chair.

Kite Pharma has several of these experimental therapies in clinical trials for difficult to treat and aggressive blood-related cancers including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, transformed follicular lymphoma, and primary mediastinal B-cell lymphoma. Its non-Hodgkin lymphoma therapy, known as axicabtagene ciloleucel, or axi-cel, is scheduled to be reviewed by Food and Drug Administration by November 2017.

The company is also testing engineered T-cells to treat solid tumor cancers. Kite Pharma licensed technology from National Cancer Institute in September 2016 that modifies T-cells, then are grown in the lab in large quantities and infused back into the patient, where they attract the cancer-fighting antigen proteins. In these cases, the receptors attract and bind to neoantigens, those not encountered previously by the immune system.

As reported in Science & Enterprise, the altered T-cells attack tumor cells expressing a mutation known as G12D of the KRAS gene. The KRAS oncogene, genes where mutations are closely linked with cancer, is believed responsible for 95 percent of pancreatic cancers and nearly half (45%) of colorectal cancers.The G12D mutation is the most common for the KRAS gene and implicated in some 50,000 new cancer cases each year in the U.S. In December 2016, the company reported in New England Journal of Medicine on a patient with lung cancer, whose tumors spread from the colon had the tumors reduced in size after a single treatment of these engineered cells.

In its clinical studies, Kite Pharma also experienced high rates of adverse side effects, including two deaths from from hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a rare life-threatening disorder from overactive immune system cells, and cardiac arrest, in a trial of its therapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Other reported adverse effects include low white blood cell counts increasing the risk of infections,  anemia, low blood platelet counts, encephalopathy — a neurological disorder — neurological toxicity, and severe cytokine release syndrome that occurs when enzymes are emitted from cells targeted by treatments, causing flu-like symptoms.

Under the agreement, Gilead is buying all outstanding shares of Kite Pharma’s common stock for $11.9 billion or 180.00 a share. That price is about 29 percent more than Kite Pharma’s closing share price on Friday, and 50 percent higher than the company’s 30-day weighted average share price.

“The field of cell therapy,” says Gilead’s CEO John Milligan in a joint statement, “has advanced very quickly, to the point where the science and technology have opened a clear path toward a potential cure for patients.”

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