Cellectis Approach to Cancer Gene Therapy May Drive Down Cost

Cellectis SA’s approach to mass producing cancer-fighting T cells may yield a more affordable treatment, Chief Executive Officer Andre Choulika said.

The French company can make its experimental drug for about $15,000 a dose, and the cost may drop to as low as $5,000 as the process is standardized, Choulika said in an interview, without identifying an eventual price.

Cellectis is among the developers of CAR T, for chimeric antigen receptor therapy, a process that enhances T cells in a lab and injects them in patients. The technology has generated impressive results in small studies, but it’s unknown whether CAR T can be widely replicated and at what cost. Analysts estimate prices of as much as $300,000 per patient.

“Our focus was not only to have a product that could be frozen and shipped fairly easily around the world, but also be affordable,” said Choulika, who co-founded Paris-based Cellectis in 1999.

While other companies developing CAR T, including Novartis AG and Juno Therapeutics Inc., have had success modifying T cells of individual patients, Cellectis buys white blood cells in bulk, 4 billion at a time. The process ultimately yields about 1,000 doses, Choulika said.

The price may be a moot point unless Cellectis, which is collaborating with Pfizer Inc., can prove its treatment works. Its first trials in leukemia patients will begin later this year, with two additional early-stage trails in other cancers scheduled for 2016.

The process depends on gene editing to ensure the souped-up cells don’t attack the patient’s healthy cells, he said.

“What makes us different is that we have a very powerful gene-editing technology that allows us to disable genes in T cells,” he said. “The T cell becomes totally blind.”

Cellectis calls the process UCART, for universal CAR T.

“A treatment with UCARTs would be more convenient, cheaper, carry fewer risks and allow for much better margins” than other CAR T technologies, Fabian Wenner, an analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux, said in an April report.

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