When Bellicum Pharmaceuticals built the cell therapy plant in Houston, Texas, it planned to use the US site to support its early-phase chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T trials and late-phase development and commercialization of Rivo-cel (rivogenlecleucel), a drug designed to improve hematopoietic stem cell transplantation outcomes.
A registrational trial of Rivo-cel met its primary endpoint in July 2019, leading Bellicum to start looking for a partner for the asset. However, the search for a partner did not go as well as Bellicum hoped.
By November, Bellicum CEO Rick Fair was warning investors that “it's unclear if an agreement [for Rivo-cel] will be reached.” Bellicum responded to the uncertainty by pausing work in the area.
That decision about Rivo-cel had a knock-on effect on the viability of Bellicum’s manufacturing facility.
Fair said, “Given our decisions on Rivo-cel, our facility is substantially underutilized with a significant fixed cost base. We are actively pursuing a partner for the facility with the goals of reducing operating costs while maintaining critical viral vector and cell therapy development capabilities and dedicated manufacturing capacity.”
Bellicum’s pursuit of a partner led it to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. In return for $15m (€13.5m), MD Anderson is set to buy the 60,000-square-foot facility, giving it production capacity to support its own cell therapies and those of its strategic partners.
The deal features a master services agreement intended to ensure Bellicum can access cell therapy manufacturing capacity despite no longer having an in-house facility. MD Anderson will make CAR-Ts and other cell therapies for use in Bellicum’s clinical trials, plus potentially early commercial supply, from the Houston facility on a service basis.
To smooth the transition, around 35 Bellicum employees based at the facility are set to start working for MD Anderson once the deal goes through. Bellicum expects to close the deal in the first quarter.
MD Anderson will use the capacity not taken up by Bellicum’s assets to support its own programs and those of its partners. The US cancer center has been at the forefront of efforts to develop and deploy cell therapies, creating a need for manufacturing capacity to support the work of its discovery division.