The upheaval in the Novartis CAR-T program happened while I was off at a conference last week and unable to give it a full treatment. So now that it’s happened, let’s think about it a bit.
The folks at Endpoints have been a good source of info on this story, and it appears that Novartis has cut back in this area more than their press releases would have indicated. That’s actually pretty typical – the company doesn’t go in for big layoff announcements, preferring to cut back quietly. The company responded to that report by saying that no, they’re not pulling back from CAR-T, but rather re-integrating that effort into the larger organization. I’m not sure what I think about that. For large companies, this can be a legitimate point, but it can also be re-integration in sense of “dissolved back into the undifferentiated blob”, which is not good. Losing 120 positions, which is the report, does not sound like an orderly retreat.
Overall, it’s kind of hard for me to believe that the CAR-T stuff is just another oncology therapy, part of the broad portfolio, etc., which is the tone I got from the Novartis response. And the company had been making a big deal out of the separate unit and its results up until now (we’ll see how long that link is valid!) It’s also hard for me to picture that the unit had pretty much solved the scientific and manufacturing questions it was created to address, and had these in a state ready to hand off to the rest of the organization. This is still a very wild, wide-open field, and there are doubtless going to be a lot of surprises coming in it. And one of these is Novartis acting (at least a little bit) as if that’s not the case.