Biotech Strategy Blog

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

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BioTwitter is all a-flutter today with the announcement from BMS that the CheckMate–026 trial in first line non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) comparing nivolumab (Opdivo) to chemotherapy did NOT meet its primary endpoint of progression-free survival (PFS).

The news was not entirely a surprise to us at BSB, here’s why…

Figurative statute representing Science on Holborn Viaduct in City of London.

Figurative statute representing Science on Holborn Viaduct in City of London.

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HMS VictoryThe dog days of summer are usually quiet on the Pharmaland front, although this year has been a bit of an exception, being notable for a batch of deals being completed and announced already.

The cell therapy space is one area that has courted both controversy and new collaborations, for example. Nary a week seems to pass without something appearing in the news! This has proven pretty interesting for a number of subscribers, who write in asking plenty of astute questions.

Today’s questions from BSB readers therefore encompass allogeneic cell therapies and what’s going on in that fast moving dynamic space.  Not all of the announcements may be what they seem though, and some are much more riskier than others.

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The Shard from River ThamesMuch has been written about the impact of cancer immunotherapies, particularly the twin pillars of checkpoint blockade and CAR T cell therapies, but beyond that lies a huge wealth of alternative approaches that may come in very useful indeed.

Just as we have seen oncogenic escape witth targeted therapies, there is also a related phenomenon called immune escape. Likewise, this can occur as either primary or secondary resistance.

It’s very important to consider this issue, because, after all, the vast majority of cancer patients with solid tumours do NOT see durable clinical benefit with immunotherapies when given as single agents. Some don’t respond at all (primary resistance), while others may see an initial response, then relapse (secondary resistance).

Understanding the mechanisms involved in resistance may help us design better combination trials to address the underlying biology as well as develop biomarkers to help select appropriate patients for each regimen. Clearly resistance can vary, not only by tumour type, but also by lesion and patient, making it a very complex situation to research.

Some interesting new information has recently come to light that is worthy of futher discussion and analysis, particularly in the context of other published data in this niche.

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The race to the be first to market in the United States with a CD19 directed CAR-T cell therapy is a bit like the America’s Cup Challenge Race Series – one boat/company is ahead and then another is ahead, it’s an ever changing and fluid situation…

Americas Cup Portsmouth

In this post, we’re looking at questions from subscribers – so what’s in the July BSB mailbag?

* CAR T Cell Therapy: Is the recent FDA hold – that came and went in record time, a setback to Juno? Who will win the CAR-T race to market in the United States? What is the market opportunity in Europe?
* Jounce/Celgene Deal: Celgene have a reputation for doing deals with innovative biotech companies, but then what? Is the Jounce deal a good one, or is it a value destroyer?

There are a few other questions in the mail bag, but the above gives you a flavour of some of the commentary in this post.

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Yesterday, Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim announced a clinical trial collaboration in metastatic breast cancer with the CDK4/6 inhibitor, abemaciclib, and the IGF antibody, BI 836845. The goal of the phase Ib study is to evaluate potential of combination therapy in hormone receptor-positive, human epidermal growth factor receptor 2-negative (HR+, HER2-) metastatic breast cancer (mBC).

Braving the ASCO 2016 Poster Hall

Braving the ASCO 2016 Poster Hall

A couple of BSB readers wasted no time and wrote in asking what we thought of this development, so this presents an excellent opportunity to turn the spotlight on combining targeted therapies in a rational fashion, especially as there was data presented on these agents at the recent ASCO annual meeting.

There are ceratinly a number of important considerations to explore with this type of approach.

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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.

ASCO 2016 Posters 5

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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