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Penn Med and the pharmaceutical company Novartis are collaborating on a joint project, the Novartis-Penn Center for Advanced Cellular Therapeutics. 

Credit: Ananya Chandra

Big Pharma is tapping into the vast pool of knowledge at Penn Medicine. 

Last month, Penn Med and the pharmaceutical giant Novartis opened the Novartis-Penn Center for Advanced Cellular Therapeutics. Penn’s partnership with Novartis began in 2012, when Novartis invested $20 million towards Penn’s research efforts to develop personalized cellular therapies to treat a variety of cancers. 

This type of partnership was a landmark in the field of cell therapy in terms of both its breadth and magnitude. Before the Novartis partnership, this type of alliance with Big Pharma was rare in the field of cell therapy.

“The people in the field of cell therapy did not think that Big Pharma would be as interested as Novartis turned out to be," Levine said. "The interest in the field has just skyrocketed since our alliance was announced."

The Center will use new technologies to alter immune cells so that they can more effectively destroy tumors, and it plans to develop, manufacture and test these altered immune cells within patient tissue following infusion.

“If a patient responds we’d like to confirm that and understand why, and conversely if a patient does not respond we would like to understand that and use that to adjust the development of these redirected, engineered t-cells” said Bruce Levine, director of Penn Medicine’s Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility.

Over the last three and a half years, Penn researchers have worked to transfer this technology to Novartis, so that the company could begin to manufacture these engineered cells. Novartis is in the final stages of clinical trials, data from which will be soon sent to the Food and Drug Administration for final approval. The company has already purchased a plant in Morris Plains, New Jersey for the purpose of this manufacturing, which it hopes to begin in 2017.

“One can’t predict the approval process, but based on the political data we’ve seen, we’re very hopeful,” Levine said.

The Novartis partnership provides Penn significant financial support to conduct this research, but the benefits go both ways. Novartis has the ability to monetize the findings of the Center, and also has influence over the direction of the research.

“It’s an alliance, so the decisions are joint. There are joint committees for all of the main aspects of the alliance,” Levine said.

However, the exact particulars of the alliance, including the specifics of the licensing and commercialization agreements, remain private.

“While we are quite proud of our relationship with Novartis, the specific details of the collaboration are confidential,” said Susan Phillips, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs for the University of Pennsylvania Health Systems, in an emailed statement.

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