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Commentary on Science, Innovation & New Products with a focus on Oncology, Hematology & Cancer Immunotherapy

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This week in our colorectal cancer mini-series we have covered the validation of Immunoscore as a tool for determining which patients have high T cells in their tuours and are therefore candidates for single agent immunotherapy (Link), as well as microsatellite instability (MSI) and mismatch-repair deficient tumours and how they can respond immunotherapy (Link).

What happens in the majority (95%) of patients, the microsatellite stable (MSS) disease who are mismatch-repair proficient though?  They don’t respond well to checkpoint blockade so how can we help them?

Dr Johanna Bendell ASCO 2016In Chicago, BSB interviewed Dr Johanna Bendell from the Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville, Tennessee to find out more about what she and her colleagues have been doing and where they plan to go next.

You can learn about her perspectives from ASCO by logging in below or if you’re new then you can sign up for a BSB subscription via the blue box…

ASCO 2016 Collective WisdomContinuing part two of our mini-series on colorectal cancer, today we move from the big scale Immunoscore study to small subsets of disease that are looking interesting in several ways.

For years, advanced colorectal cancer has been dominated by chemotherapy (FOLFOX or FOLFIRI) with and without targeted therapies (VEGF and EGFR antibodies), with very little new to talk about. Part of the challenge here is how do you add something the existing standard of care and move the needle significantly. In front-line, for example, the OS is already out 2-plus years, so these are long and risky trials to undertake. Not surpisingly, many companies have sought to evaluate their agents in tumour types where they consider the risk of development to be lower.

Unless… we can find creative approaches that turn the paradigm on its head and identify a clearly defined niche that can be carved out separately from allcomers.

This is where we’re at now – identifying subsets that might respond exquisitely to novel approaches based on a rational understanding of the underlying biology.  One obvious subset might be BRAF, which can be treated with a BRAF inhibitor with or without other targeted therapies as Dr Pietrantonio and colleagues (2016) literally just showed for example, but what about others of potential interest?

Colorectal cancer with microsatellite stable (MSS) disease represents 95% of metastatic patients. These are people whose mismatched repair system is proficient and actively functional in fixing the DNA strand breaks that occur during the course of life.

In contrast, those with microsatellite instability (MSI) are the minority of people with colon cancer (and some other cancers too) whose mismatched repair system is deficient and unable to adequately repair the DNA strand breaks. Ironically, this leads to thousands of mutations that can be recognised by the immune system to help detect the presence of cancer. It also tends to occur in hereditary cancers such as Lynch Syndrome.

We’ve been following the MSI vs MSS story for a while now, but at ASCO this year there was more data available and things appear to be getting clearer on the commercial front too.

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We’ve been following the work of Dr Jérôme Galon, a French immunologist, on Immunoscore for a while now, and many readers will remember the last interview he kindly gave BSB from the European Cancer Conference in September [Link].

IMG_6454In 2015 the large global trial to validate Immunoscore as a biomarker was still ongoing, so if you want some background to this important concept, do check out Dr Galon’s interview as it’s well worth reading as a primer on immunosurveillance, the importance of immune cells – the type, density and location, as well as background on the Immunoscore test as a marker of outcome.

Since then, the group have also published some related data that both moves the field forward and offers a way to unify some important concepts in colorectal cancer.

In Chicago, the really good news was that the final results of a large global study involving nearly 4,000 patients were presented to a packed audience in the main hall where the plenary is held. It’s not often you see the gastrointestinal oral session allocated the prime time room over lung or breast cancers – the atmosphere was certainly electric with anticipation!

This week’s post ASCO mini series focuses on colorectal cancer, with a look at several important aspects of this disease as we learn more about the underlying biology, as well as how the immune system functions and how we can use that scientific knowledge to improve outcomes for patients, sometimes in a dramatic way.

To learn more about these promising new developments and read what Dr Galon had to say, subscribers can log-in below or you can sign-up via the blue box.

I was thinking that the reader mailbag questions this week would be full of straightforward easy to answer clinical questions, after all, they usually are post ASH and ASCO… but not this year!

T-cells attacking a cancer cell. Digital illustration.

T-cells attacking a cancer cell. Digital illustration.

Instead, there is a huge wall of intense focus on CAR T cell therapies and the latest round of intriguing developments in this space.  While CARs have received much attention, TCR cell products have largely flown under the radar to date, although that may change.

What’s particularly interesting is that these charges could potentially be transformative or absolute duds – it’s unlikely to be an indifferent middle ground here.

Here, we answer questions on the ever-increasingly complex science that is ongoing in the TCR and CAR T cell fields.

In the next mailbag, we will cover the clinical questions arising from data at ASCO, so if you have any queries on the data in Chicago, there’s still time to send them in before next Friday!

If you are interested in the new developments in the complex world of gene editing and how they may impact the ever-changing adoptive cell therapy space, then this article is for you.  Subscribers can log-in below or you can click the Blue Box to nab instant access!

Crowds of People at ASCO 2016

The ASCO Wall 2016

There has been much frustration on many fronts at the number of trials that do not see a relationship between PD-L1 expression and response. Some do, but many don’t. This has lead to quite a few investigators suggesting that the IHC assay may not be as useful as originally hoped, for predicting response to checkpoint blockade or selecting patients for therapy.

While we often do see a trend for more responders with higher levels of expression, the main issue is that PD-L1-negative patients can also see some responses, albeit at a lower rate.

There are many factors that can affect the measurement:

  • Fresh vs. archival tissue
  • Heterogeneity within the tumour
  • Tumour cells (TC) vs. immune cells (IC)
  • Different antibodies used for each assay
  • The dynamic nature of the tumour microenvironment – does timing of the biopsy matter?
  • Human error – a pathologist has to eyeball the IHC readouts and decide the level of staining intensity

And so on. These are just a few examples of the factors that can potentially affect the results, making it quite a challenging test to undertake. There is also time – does the level of expression vary temporally depending on which prior therapies are administered?

It would be easy to be disheartened by this, but fear not!

There were some impressive new data presented at ASCO that were not only intriguing, but also show us a way forward on how a multi-factorial approach could be used in different tumour types. By this I mean we might end up with different tests used in conjunction for several different cancers in order to a) predict responders and non-responders and b) better select patients for appropriate regimens or clinical trials.

It’s not going to be as easy as one size (or test) fits all.  Sometimes a more more sophisticated approach will be needed.  New data at ASCO gave us hints on what’s to come in this direction.

To learn more about these new developments, subscribers can log-in below or if interested in an individual or corporate license, click on the blue box below…

One of the exciting developments in metastatic urothelial carcers of late has been the emergence of checkpoint blockade with some very encouraging signs of durable clinical activity. Urothelial cancers comprise a group of urinary tract tumours including bladder, penile, ureter etc, although most trials tend to enroll bladder cancer patients, where there is a high unmet medical need.

Chicago John Hancock Center View

View from the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center, Chicago

This year alone has seen the FDA grant AstraZeneca with breakthrough therapy designation for durvalumab in February, while Genentech/Roche subsequently received approval for atezolizumab (Tecentriq) based on phase 2 data on May 18th.

To put these developments in context, the last FDA approval in metastatic urothelial carcinoma was almost 4 decades ago in 1978 for the chemotherapy cisplatin!

As is often the case in Pharmaland, once one company starts exploring a therapy in a given tumour type, others will quickly follow. Already we have several immunotherapy agents being evaluated in urothelial carcinoma both in early and metastatic disease, so what can we learn from the data presented at ASCO last week and where is the landscape going in the future?

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We have selected five key strategic trends that are emerging that will be critical to follow, understand, and even implement if you are on the coal-face of clinical research and new product development.

ASCO16 Chicago 5We aren’t talking about financial things such as cost toxicity, or even how doctors should be paid, but meaty scientific aspects that we need to watch out for. If we are going to improve on cancer research and R&D in the future, these issues will be important.

For companies and academic researchers alike, there is much to learn from the tsunami of data that hit this week if you have a keen interest in the field and a bent for making sense of patterns out of an amorphous mass of data.

Not paying attention to evolution in clinical development can mean the difference between being in the winners circle, on the outside looking in, or falling way behind your competitors. Playing catch up is never anyone’s idea of fun in this market – oncology moves at a lightning fast pace compared to many other therapy areas.

Intrigued? To find out what these strategic trends are, subscribers can log-in to read the analysis or you can sign-up by clicking on the Blue Box below.

The 10 abstracts selected here are actually not in order of magnitude, preference or weight… with the lone exception #1, an incredible piece of work that was a decade in the making.

Chicago!

Chicago!

Few of these choices are in the press briefing, none are in the Plenary session – they’re often hidden gems that many will miss in the hurly burly of the data drop and noise.

They’re also 10 abstracts that I feel are worthy of highlighting with some additional commentary.

Some of the ideas here illustrate some intriguing trends that are emerging, others may have a big impact on the cancer immunotherapy space, either because of the novel concept idea, or because the data are very compelling, if you understand the science.

You can decide for yourselves – which ones would you pick and why?

Subscribers can log-in or you can sign up in the Blue Box below to learn more about the important cancer immunotherapy abstracts at ASCO 2016…

After a long lull on the targeted therapies front – outside of EGFR T790M in lung cancer – this year’s ASCO has plenty to be cheerful about with new data across multiple tumour types.  We can’t cover them all here, but more will be discussed in the Daily Live Blogs starting on Saturday.

Which drugs are going to be in roaring back after a quiet period?  Which ones will be having a more muted meeting?

ASCO16 Chicago 4For those of you who are working in the targeting therapy world, take heart, there is a future beyond cancer immunotherapy; it is not the universal panacea and will likely not cure every cancer, at least for now.

There’s still a market opportunity for targeted therapies in cancer, and as we mentioned in yesterday’s ASCO Preview, there is also potential for the combination of targeted therapies with immunotherapies, so long as the combined toxicity is manageable and doesn’t outweigh the benefits.

In this post we’re looking at a selection of targeted therapies in a variety of tumour types. There’s a lot to choose from at ASCO this year.

Here’s a few we think are worth highlighting upfront.

Subscribers can log-in to learn more or you can click on the Blue Box below to sign-up and become a member of the burgeoning BSB Community who appreciate the value of education, information and, even occasionally, infotainment…

For years we’ve followed the trials and tribulations of targeted therapies seeing many approved and quite a few disappear forlornly (and officially) off to dog drug heaven. Many more sit in no-man’s land as companies eagerly wait in a holding pattern for other trial readouts in different tumour types. Sadly, sometimes these studies don’t generate enough compelling data either. With so much competition about, there are no shortcuts or low-hanging fruit in biotech or cancer drug development any more.

ASCO16 Chicago 1

En route to Chicago and ASCO!

Then along came antibody drug conjugates (ADCs), with some encouraging results in a range of cancers in both solid tumours and hematologic malignancies that lead to the approval of several new therapies.

After that, the next big advance was immunotherapies, specifically checkpoint blockade, with encouraging single agent activity in melanoma, lung, and even urothelial bladder cancer. We’ve also seen the promise fo combining two different checkpoints such as nivolumab and ipilimumab together in metastatic melanoma, albeit with an increase in toxicities.

This is all very well and good, although the challenge remains that the majority of patients either respond to therapy and relapse, or do not respond at all, depending on the circumstances, the tumour type and the regimen. We still have a long way to go in moving the needle and creating a new paradigm shift on a broad scale.

So what happens when we start to combine modalities – such as targeted therapies with immunotherapies?

Uh-oh, I hear the distant cries of disagreement erupt…

  • Remember vemurafenib plus ipilimumab in metastatic melanoma was scuppered by severe hepatitis?
  • What about osimertinib plus durvalumab in NSCLC and the increased incidence of ILD?

Both of these statements are true, and yet… we should not assume that all mixed therapy combination approaches are doomed on the basis of a mere n of 2. What happens if some are synergistic or additive? What happens of there are hidden gems that teach us new ways of doing things rather than doing the same old thing just because it’s always been done that way?

With this in mind, I’d like to open the door on our first ASCO 2016 Preview series with a look at novel combination approaches in development that caught my eye.

What are the early hints and signals that we can learn from the data? Which companies are evaluating imaginative new ideas that may turn the tables on traditional thinking?  The ideas discussed here may well surprise a few people.

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