How to Cure Cancer: Zelig Eshhar and the $12 b. Exit

By Shlomo Maital

Prof. Zelig Eschar

  Last year, I blogged about a remarkable breakthrough in research on fighting leukemia and lymphoma.

“Media reports last week [2016] brought exciting news about a new breakthrough in the fight to cure cancer. Cancer patients received genetically modified T-cells that were equipped with synthetic molecules called chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs. Those T-cells were able to target and destroy the tumor cells – specifically the ones that were responsible for the acute lymphoblastic leukemia the patients were suffering from. According to officials at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where the research was carried out, patients in the trial – some of whom were told in 2013 they had barely a few months to live – not only survived, but now, after the therapy, “have no sign of the disease.”   One of the pioneers of this approach is Prof. Zelig Eshhar, of Israel’s Weizmann Institute. According to press accounts:   “Eshhar has been conducting T-cell research for over a decade, and in 2014 was recognized by leading industry publication Human Gene Therapy for his work, along with Dr. Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania for their work in the field.”

Yesterday brought an interesting postscript, with an Israeli perspective.

    Kite Pharma, a US company founded by an Israeli scientist, Dr. Arie Belldegrun, acquired the patent rights to Eschar’s breakthrough, in a very complicated deal. Now, according to the Wall St. Journal, a biotech company called Gilead (“Balm of Gilead”, from the Bible), with $30 b. in annual revenues, has acquired Kite Pharma, for a staggering $12 billion. And that figure is not overpriced.

   One reason for the high price is that recently Novartis received FDA approval for a similar drug, based on genetically engineering T-cells to recognize and kill cancer cells, this one for leukemia.   Kite and Gilead may soon get FDA approval for their drug aimed at non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

   Belldegrun is a remarkable individual.   He is a Professor at UCLA, a specialist in urological oncology. And at the same time he is a serial, successful entrepreneur, having done several exits (and earned many hundreds of millions of dollars), and is founder of Kite. He recognized the potential of Eschar’s breakthrough and managed a complex deal in which Kite acquired the rights to the patent. Belldegrun studied at Israel’s Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University Medical School, and moved to the US early in his career. He collaborated closely with Dr. Steven Rosenberg, of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

     The new approach to fighting cancer – teaching T-cells how to spot cancer cells, which are cleverly disguised, tear off their disguise and kill them – is highly promising. Kudos to Professor Eschar, Dr. Belldegrun and to those who were early investors in Kite – and profited.

 

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