Several clinical-stage biotechs are developing therapies using chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-T). Two of them in particular have enjoyed some good news in 2016: bluebird bio (NASDAQ:BLUE) and Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE). Which of these two up-and-coming biotechs is the better investment pick right now? Here's how Bluebird and Kite compare.

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The case for Bluebird

Bluebird's lead candidate, LentiGlobin, is currently being evaluated in four clinical studies. The farthest along is a late-stage study targeting treatment of transfusion-dependent beta-thalassemia (TDT), a rare genetic blood disorder. LentiGlobin is also being tested as a potential treatment for sickle cell disease.

The commercial potential for LentiGlobin could be significant. Analysts think the drug could reach peak annual sales for the TDT indication of $1 billion, and peak annual sales for the sickle cell disease indication of $3 billion if approved. 

Another candidate using Bluebird's lentiviral-based gene therapy is Lenti-D. The experimental drug is in a phase 2/3 clinical study targeting treatment of cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy (CALD), a rare genetic neurological disorder. Peak sales estimates for Lenti-D are around $180 million. 

Bluebird's oncology program potential is especially intriguing. Celgene exercised its option for exclusive commercialization rights for bb2121 earlier this year. Bluebird recently announced encouraging results from a phase 1 study of the experimental CAR-T therapy in treating multiple myeoloma. It's still very early, but BMO Capital's Matthew Luchini estimates that bb2121 could hit peak sales of up to $3.6 billion if ultimately approved.

The case for Kite Pharma

Like Bluebird, Kite Pharma has a big partner for its CAR-T program; Amgen forged a deal with the small biotech in 2014. Also like Bluebird, Kite's partnership with a bigger player doesn't include its lead candidate.

That lead candidate is KTE-C19. Kite recently initiated a rolling submission for U.S. regulatory approval of the biologic in treating patients with relapsed/refractory aggressive B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) who are ineligible for autologous stem cell transplant (ASCT). Kite hopes to receive approval in 2017. If KTE-C19 receives a green light from regulators, Wall Street projects the therapy could reach peak annual sales of up to $1.9 billion.

What about the rest of Kite's pipeline? The company does have one other clinical-stage CAR-T candidate -- an anti-CD19 therapy in an early-stage study for treatment of several blood disorders. Kite also has three early-stage pipeline candidates using genetic engineering to express T cell receptors (TCRs).

Kite has at least one other thing in common with Bluebird: The two biotechs are partners on one of those early-stage TCR candidates. Kite and Bluebird struck a deal last year to develop TCR therapies for treating cancers associated with human papillomavirus (HPV). Kite is leading the program in the U.S., while Bluebird is in the driver's seat in Europe.

Better buy

Which is the better pick -- Bluebird or Kite? It depends on your perspective. Bluebird has the richer pipeline. On the other hand, Kite is closer to potentially getting a product on the market, so I'd give the nod to Kite because of this. The old saying that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush seems applicable, even though Kite doesn't actually have a bird in the hand just yet.

There are risks, though. KTE-C19 isn't a shoo-in for regulatory approval. Bluebird also has its fair share of risks, with the possibility that clinical studies don't go as well as expected. For now, though, I suspect the odds for KTE-C19 are pretty good. That proverbial bird just might be flying toward Kite's hand.