Biotech Strategy Blog

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

Posts tagged ‘Gordon B. Mills’

A standing room only audience at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) heard from several distinguished speakers on what the future of cancer drug therapy is likely to look like: combinations of novel cancer agents.

This AACR session was one of the highlights of the meeting and would have merited from being part of the plenary program.

Jeffrey Engelman from MGH persuasively presented on why we need combination therapies to overcome resistance. He noted that:

  • Most cancers are not sensitive to currently available single-agent therapies
  • Even when sensitive to single-agent therapies, cancers develop resistance, often necessitating combinations

One of the challenges of this approach will be “identifying effective combinations,” he said.

Roy Herbst from Yale, presented on some of the practical challenges involved with the early phase testing of two drugs, and challenged the audience with a critical question:

“Do we possess the necessary translational tools that will help us identify the right drug combinations, ratios and schedules with the right patient?”

Stuart Lutzker from Genentech described their experiences of clinical trials with rational drug combination of trastuzumab and pertuzumab for HER2+ breast cancer.  He concluded that:

“Rational drug combinations have begun to yield exciting Phase III results and should be preferred over empiric drug combinations.”

The Pharma Strategy Blog video interview with Gordon Mills from ECCO/ESMO 2011 in Stockholm offers some interesting insights into how MD Anderson are helping to facilitate academia-industry combination trials with novel compounds from different companies in order to achieve more rational drug design and improve outcomes for people with cancer.

If two or more novel cancer drugs are required to interrupt key pathways or to avoid adaptive resistance, what does this mean for the regulatory strategy?

Janet Woodcock addressed some of these challenges in her AACR presentation, and discussed how the:

“FDA would not want to approve a combination regimen with two new agents unless each contributed to the effect.”

Draft guidance on “Codevelopment of Two or More Unmarketed Investigational Drugs for Use in Combination” was published by the Agency in December 2010. Click here for a PDF copy.

The document gives examples of a number of different phase II trial designs that can be used to demonstrate the contribution each drug makes to the combination, and the additive effect seen.

As an example, if each drug in a combination has activity and can be administered individually then the guidance document suggests a multi-arm phase II trial may be needed that compares the impact of either drug alone versus the combination and standard of care.  An adaptive trial may also be used if appropriate.

Dr Woodcock noted that future cancer drug development is likely to include increasing use of combinations, adaptive trials to evaluate various drug and diagnostic combinations and increasing attention to the use of novel biomarkers.

The message I took home from the AACR annual meeting is that the future of cancer therapy is in combinations, and we can expect more clinical trials with two unapproved agents (novel-novel combinations) in the future.


Academic institutions are now bringing pharma/biotech companies together and facilitating rational combination trials that make solid scientific sense.

Combining at least two targeted drugs looks to be increasingly necessary in order to develop innovative new cancer treatments, where turning off one target may stimulate another, thus both need to be targeted for there to be an overall effect.

However, one company may not have all the pathways and drug targets covered by their portfolio.  The result is that companies may have to work together in combination trials with each providing one drug from their portfolio.

That was one of the key messages I took from Gordan Mills (UT MD Anderson Cancer Center) in his recent video interview with Sally Church from Pharma Strategy Blog:

Sally Church’s video interview with Professor Mills is well worth watching if you have not already done so.

Not only are universities and research institutions well placed to judge the scientific merits, but as Mills points out they can facilitate things as an independent third party and actively help bring partnerships together.  Given that combination therapies may be needed in order to turn off different parts of signaling pathways and cross-talk, I think we are likely to see more of this approach.

It’s going to be new territory for many companies – how to enter into a potential joint venture or alliance? However, if it results in a therapy that works, it is going to be win-win for all parties. It may also improve efficiency in drug development and lead to better use of patients in early stage development.

Some examples of where this is happening already in oncology include AstraZeneca and Merck with their MEK-AKT approach and GSK (MEK) with Novartis (PI3K), to name a couple.  This is a new trend we are likely to see more of in the future.

I can see universities hiring alliance managers who have industry experience to ensure these collaborations run smoothly.

The topic of the industry/academia interface in rational cancer drug development will also be discussed in a plenary session at the forthcoming American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics (November 12-16, 2011) in San Francisco.

How academia can better help the pharma/biotech industry bring innovative, rational drug combinations to market is a topic that I think we will be reading more about in coming months.

error: Content is protected !!