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

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It’s been very clear for over four years now that combinations were going to be necessary if we want to a larger number of deeper and more durable responses than can attained with monotherapy.  Gradually, we are starting to see early and very preliminary readouts with some of the trials in progress.

We are also learning very quickly that it’s going to be a case of #notalltumours and #notallsubsets.

ASCO 2016 Posters 2

Another very busy poster session at #ASCO16!

By this, I mean we obviously can’t take a one-combination-fits-all approach for all tumour types.

We need to be able to classify patients into more homogenous subsets and then devise different combinations or even sequences that address the underlying biology of both the cancer itself and also the tumour microenvironment.  That’s going to take a while to sort out, perhaps even years.

Let’s not forget though that in the meantime, we can gather information quite a few clues both preclinically, as well as from initial clinical studies.  Sometimes, after all, we even learn more from negative trials than positive ones. This is an area that is ripe for combinations with traditional targeted therapies, the question is which ones are promising and why?

We took a look at the landscape in SCCH&N and how this might evolve over time in the medium term, with future opportunities, that can be explored in rational combination approaches.

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No CyclingLate this afternoon, Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO) announced (link to press release) that the FDA had put a clinical hold on enrollment into a phase 2 trial of their JCAR015 construct in relapsed refractory acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) in adults in the ROCKET Trial: NCT02535364.

The decision by the FDA was as a result of three recent patient deaths reported to be due to neurotoxicity. In after-hours trading the stock dropped 30% from a market close of $40.82, reaching an after hours low at time of writing of $26.66 at 4.43pm ET.

In this post we look at what happened, the possible reasons behind it, and what it may mean for other CAR T companies. A leading CAR-T cell expert also provided BSB with some commentary after the news broke.

Good News: Post now updated following FDA lifting hold on ROCKET trial.

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There were so many posters worthy of further analysis and discussion at ASCO this year that we may well need to write a longer series than usual on some of these hidden gems!

ASCO 2016 Posters 6If you’re anything like me, just getting round the massive poster hall melée each day in one piece to nab the QR codes and chat to some KOLs felt like an achievement in itself, never mind having the time to read and digest them properly.  This is why it’s nice to sit down and process some of the findings afterwards because there was actually quite a lot to learn on the nuances with later reflection.

So what’s on deck in the hot seat today?

Here, we focus on the importance of the tumour microenvironment and how that can be manipulated so that subsequent therapy can be more effective.

Fortunately, there are a number of different approaches that can potentially achieve this lofty goal, at least preclinically, but what happens in the real world when these concepts are actually tested in people with cancer?

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We’ve come a long way over the last two years in the oncology market, with several novel approaches approved, numerous major phase 3 trials evolving and a huge turnaround for many companies in terms of early pipeline activity.

ASCO 2016 Posters 3

The melée at the ASCO 2016 Poster Hall

Unfortunately, this also means that the tendency of lemming activity also increases in the rush to copy everyone else and not be left behind.  Just a couple of years ago, some industry friends grumbled that there were over 20 checkpoint inhibitors chasing them in development; they may be surprised to know that now there are nearly 70!  This is both unprecedented and unsustainable, and yet it’s also a function of the perceived success these agents have had on the cancer R&D landscape to date.  Everyone wants one for fear of being left behind… except that many are indeed way behind already.

You can imagine the tall guy on the left of the picture looking at his watch and wondering, “Ah so many new posters, so little time!”

Meanwhile, as the rate of approved cancer therapies increases, so does the inexorable march in terms of hyper-aggressive basket pricing.  I would argue that at some point, it no longer acceptable or even conscionable to change a premium or even market rate for drugs that give an incremental improvement of a mere 2 months of extra life.

Equally, one thing that many industry observers and the media love to do, and wrongly in my view, is to compare the individual drug prices on an annualized basis.  This is silly for several reasons:

  1. So far, not all patients are treated for a full year
  2. If patients are treated until progression and that happens early, then therapy is stopped
  3. What people should be looking at is the average treatment cost based on the length of therapy – some people will receive a few months and some much more than that
  4. What’s the true cost of a cure or remission to a patient and their family?
  5. How do we quantify the impact of the long lasting durable remissions?

These questions will become increasingly important as we see a more aggregated therapy approach emerge over the next few years.

By this, I mean that we are now going beyond monotherapy and even combinations; those trials have already long started and are the low hanging fruit that has been rapidly snapped up by the early players, as we eagerly wait for their data readouts.

If you have new agents coming-out of preclinical and into phase 1 development over the next year, there are a number of important questions to consider:

  • What are you going to do and where do you start?
  • How do you gain an edge when coming from (way) behind?
  • How do you develop unique positioning that could sustain your molecule in a sea of similar competitors?
  • Is it realistic to expect the 17th and 50th checkpoint to have equivalent efficacy as what went on before and will all of these seriously make it to market?

You can see now why even the FDA’s Dr Richard Pazdur was moved to grumble about the surfeit of me-toos here and company expectations that the FDA should consider them – it’s on a massive scale that we haven’t seen before.  For once I agree and empathize with him over that dilemma, it’s madness to think they will all be as good as pembrolizumab or nivolumab.

What we are starting to see emerge now is a surprising synthesis of ideas and a merging of disparate approaches. How will this affect oncology R&D over the next 1–5 years?

A couple of smart readers wrote in asking about these emerging trends, what have we identified so far, and where do we see the oncology space going in the near to medium term future. Now that AACR and ASCO are behind us, what can we learn about the new developments and where they all fit in the oncology landscape strategically?

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Tesaro’s niraparib is a highly selective poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) 1/2 inhibitor that can induce synthetic lethality in tumor cells with homologous recombination DNA repair deficiencies (HRD), including germline BRCA-mutated tumours.  It received a lot of attention yesterday following the company’s announcement that the phase 3 trial successfully met its primary endpoint.  The trial was expected to readout this month, so it was bang on schedule.

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Braving the scrum in the ASCO 2016 poster hall

The results generated a lot of discussion and also a bunch (half a dozen!) of questions from readers, since there was a lot noise around the top-line data in the press release, but very little real analysis or context.

I was planning on rolling out the draft posts we have been working on Gems from the Poster Halls, which included one focused on ovarian cancer.  It therefore makes sense to combine the poster analysis with a reader Q&A on ovarian cancer, including a detailed look at Tesaro’s niraparib as there are some important subtleties that many have missed.

Inevitably this ended up as a rather meaty analysis rather than the quick review I originally intended!

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This morning, like many folks, I woke up to the latest immuno-oncology news on the bispecific front that Xencor, a Los Angeles based biotech, announced their latest collaboration, this time with Novartis.

Over the last few years, we have seen a surfeit of bispecifics emerge that are focused on stimulating the immune system, particularly with regard to T cells and natural killer (NK) cells, as well as antigen targets on the surface of tumours. The first one approved was Amgen’s blinatumomab (Blincyto), a CD19 targeted bispecific for the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which we have written extensively about.

Xencor logoThe Xencor/Novartis deal has a number of interesting implications that are well worth exploring in more depth that go far beyond the information provided in the press release.

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We’ve noticed for a while now that trials involving immunotherapies have not just standard adverse events reported, but also immune related adverse events (irAEs).  We saw these articulately in combination trials at ASCO earlier this month.

Most of these have involved colitis, hepatitis, pneumonitis and such like. If the signs and symptoms are picked up early through careful monitoring and education, these can be more easily managed and controlled.

What about auto-immune diseases?

Is there a risk of auto-immune disease with long term use usage of checkpoint blockade, especially in situations where patients may be treated until progression, which could be a long time if the patient is one of the lucky ones who get a durable complete response?

In today’s post we take a look at these issues. To learn more, subscribers can log in or you can sign up in the blue box below:

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.

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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.

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