Bluebird hits back at Roche's Spark, saying trademark lawsuit is attempt to 'silence' educational campaign

Bluebird Bio CEO snares $24 million pay package as gene therapy advance
Bluebird bio hits back at trademark infringement lawsuit by Roche's Spark Therapeutics, accusing the fellow gene therapy developer of trying to "silence" a sickle cell disease awareness campaign targeting the African American community. (bluebird bio)

Roche’s Spark Therapeutics is suing fellow gene therapy developer bluebird bio for infringing its trademark in a sickle cell disease educational campaign. Now, the defendant is fighting back.

The lawsuit is a “misguided exercise” by a large pharma company that tries to “shut down, compromise, and/or silence” bluebird’s direct-to-consumer disease awareness campaign, dubbed “Be the Spark,” bluebird said in a counterclaim filed in the U.S. District Court in Delaware.

The Massachusetts-based biotech made the counterargument in response to Spark’s allegation that it misused the word “spark” in a way that could confuse patients and doctors in the gene therapy community and weaken Spark’s brand and reputation. For its part, bluebird maintains that its use of “spark” won’t cause any confusion among people who see the campaign, and that Spark hasn’t demonstrated any evidence of actual misunderstanding.

RELATED: Roche's Spark sues gene therapy rival bluebird for using 'spark' in its marketing campaigns

Bluebird challenged Spark’s footing that the two firms are competing shops. Roche’s Spark is working on hemophilia gene therapies based on an adeno-associated virus technology, which bluebird said is “unlikely to lead to a potential therapy” for sickle cell disease. 

Bluebird, for its part, is developing sickle cell disease candidate LentiGlobin with a lentiviral vector platform. The drug is already approved in Europe under the brand name Zynteglo for beta thalassemia.

Even though both hemophilia and sickle cell disease are rare genetic blood disorders, the patient populations don’t overlap, bluebird said.

The disease awareness program Spark took issues with is housed on the website sparksicklecellchange.com. As bluebird noted, it clearly identifies itself as the source of the campaign.

RELATED: Bluebird's Zynteglo trials set to resume, putting gene therapy back on flight path to FDA filing

What’s more, bluebird invoked the “fair use” doctrine of copyright law. The word “spark” is used in campaign phrases as “a normal English word with its ordinary descriptive meaning” in the sense to motivate and empower patients, bluebird argued.

Bluebird’s counterclaim also includes a racial inequality element. Sickle cell disease predominately affects African American people, and these are the people that bluebird’s unbranded ad is targeting. Trying to nix such a campaign goes against the stated principles of Roche and Spark to combat systemic racism and advance racial parity, bluebird said.

Roche bought Philadelphia-based Spark in 2019 for $4.3 billion to gain a foothold in the hot gene therapy treatment area. The Swiss pharma expects the biotech’s hemophilia programs could better position itself against upcoming competition to its antibody drug Hemlibra. Spark is also the developer of rare eye disease drug Luxturna, the first gene therapy approved by the FDA. Further, the company is  developing a Pompe disease therapy.

As for bluebird, the biotech is trying to recover from a safety scare—and clinical hold—of LentiGlobin in sickle cell disease. It also has a gene therapy dubbed Lenti-D in late-stage development for cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy, a rare genetic disease of the brain.