Biotech Strategy Blog

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

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.

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.

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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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Lung cancer, along with metastatic melanoma, has been very much to the forefront of attention in cancer immunotherapies with both nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda) garnering approval as monotherapy from the FDA in second line treatment of NSCLC. A third molecule, atezolizumab (Tecentriq) has also been submitted to the authorities for this indication and a decision is expected soon.

Morgan Grafitti Wall

Street art in the Chicago West Loop

While no one is in any doubt that the response rates with monotherapy are low (in the 20% range) and the majority of people do not respond, the important thing so far is that when they do, they appear to be very durable responses. People are living longer, much longer than the 2–3 months of incremental improvement we are used to seeing with chemotherapy or targeted therapies.

The race is now on to see how we can improve things for the 80% of people with lung cancer who don’t respond to single agent therapy:

  • What can we do to help them?
  • Which combinations look more encouraging?
  • Should we treat beyond progression?

To answer these questions, we interviewed Dr Stephen Liu and discussed his views on some of the cancer immunotherapy combination studies presented at ASCO last week.

Dr Stephen Liu

Dr Stephen Liu at ASCO 2016

Dr Liu is a lung cancer expert at the Lombardi Cancer Centre at Georgetown University, and is actively involved in numerous clinical trials, particularly in Developmental Therapeutics.

Georgetown’s founding principle is Cura Personalis, which translates as care of the whole person. It “suggests individualized attention to the needs of others, distinct respect for unique circumstances and concerns, and an appropriate appreciation for singular gifts and insights.”

Dr Liu embodies this ideal, advocating for his patients for access to the best research advances, including genomics and clinical trials of promising agents.  At ASCO, he kindly highlighted some of the important findings from Chicago and offered context on why they matter to the field.

He told us one combination was “potentially transformative” and could be “practice changing” in lung cancer with more data.

Intrigued? To find out what these important trials are and which ones to watch out for, subscribers can log-in to read the article or you can sign-up by clicking on the Blue Box below.

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.

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