Biotech Strategy Blog

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

Posts tagged ‘Merck’

Iron Men of CrosbyThis is the third in our mini-series previewing the forthcoming European Society for Medical Oncology 2016 Congress in Copenhagen (Twitter #ESMO16).

In this post we’re taking a look at what’s hot in head and neck cancer.

It’s not a cancer type we typically hear a lot about, but there’s an unmet medical need for effective new treatments.

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The 2016 Congress of the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) is fast approaching. It takes place next month from October 7th to 11th and we will be on site covering the meeting for Biotech Strategy Blog. We’re looking forward to a great meeting!

ESMO 2016 CongressIf you are sitting on the fence as to whether you should go to Copenhagen, then hopefully our series of Previews will help you decide.

Be warned that accommodation is in already in short supply and ESMO are now putting people up across the Oresund bridge in Malmo, Sweden.

The Congress App has a lot of useful information and is well worth downloading, if you haven’t done so already.

Last week many of the late breaking abstract (LBA) titles were announced, although there are still some placeholders. While we won’t know the actual late-breaking data until the meeting, the LBA titles offer insights into what will be presented in Copenhagen.

In the second in our ESMO 2016 Preview series, we’re highlighting the lung cancer late breakers that we’re looking forward to hearing, providing some background on why they may be of interest, and a look at how some of subset landscapes may be a-changing in the future.

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The BET Bromodomain market is a meaty epigenetics topic we have followed for several years now, including a look at the space back in 2013 on the old Pharma Strategy Blog (Link). The last update on this was ironically at AACR last year when we discussed MYC and bromodomains (Link).

Nawlins Mardi GrasIn a remarkable tale of two cities in real life, two companies we discussed in those posts – Constellation Pharma and Tensha Therapeutics – have had markedly different fortunes since then. Roche decided to end their collaboration with the former and went on to acquire the latter instead.

Since we first wrote about bromodomains and BET inhibitors, the niche has exploded in a wildly stunning way… More drugs in the pipeline, more tumour targets being explored, and even novel combinations being evaluated preclinically for synergistic or additive effects. Even I was surprised by how competitive this niche has become based on the offerings at AACR this year.

With all the wealth of new data at the AACR annual meeting and also some other recent presentations I’ve attended elsewhere, it’s time for a more in-depth look at the BET/Bromodomain landscape.

Who are the new players, which tumour targets are now being evaluated, which combinations might be useful?

A word to the wise – this is neither a nerdy science post nor a comprehensive literature review – instead we take a look at the emerging landscape from a new product development perspective.

Science has been absolutely critical to success in all of the cancer therapeutics from targeted therapies to immunotherapies that have emerged in the last decade.

It really doesn’t matter whether you come from a marketing and commercial organisation or the investment community – if you want to make great decisions, you need to understand the basics of the science underpinning the R&D, where the strengths and weaknesses are. The alternative is play Roulette and put everything on Black 11 as a euphemism for whichever company/product/target you have an interest in.

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ASH 2014 cHL PembroOne of the hotly debated topics at the 2014 American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting was the arrival of checkpoint data in classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma (cHL), with initial data presented on 20-30 patients with relapsed or refractory cHL who received either nivolumab (BMS) or pembrolizumab (Merck) in open label, single agent trials.

Updated phase I data is expected to be presented at the 2015 ASH annual meeting in Orlando (Dec 5-8) (Twitter #ASH15)

At the recent ESMO symposium on Immuno-Oncology in Lausanne (Twitter #Immuno15) – great hashtag, there was an excellent overview of checkpoint blockade in lymphomas. What did this tell us about progress in this disease and where are things going?


The ESMO IO meeting set the scene for what we can expect at ASH this year?

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SITC Day 3 Highlights

There were a couple of late breakers presented in the oral session yesterday that are worth discussing for several reasons, not least the controversy surrounding the stock action afterwards.

Dr Tara Gangadhar (U Penn) presented epacadostat, Incyte’s IDO1 inhibitor, in combination with pembrolizumab, Merck’s anti-PD1 inhibitor in a phase 1/2 trial with selected solid tumours.

Will combining these agents lead to better responses and outcomes than with pembrolizumab alone?

Dr Naiyer Rizvi (Moffitt) presented the combination data of AstraZeneca’s anti-PDL1 (durvalumab) plus anti-CTLA4 (tremelimumab) in patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Neither of these agents have yet been approved in any indication, so the only relative comparators we have here are nivolumab and pembrolizumab as single agents in NSCLC and ipilimumab plus nivolumab in metastatic melanoma. There are no data approved for the BMS combo in lung cancer.

This review looks at both trials, in terms of the controversial data presented, and also in a broader context of the ever-changing landscape.

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With the recent approvals of nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda) in advanced lung cancer as well as new checkpoint inhibitor data presented on atezolizumab at the European Cancer Conference in Vienna, there are several new lung cancer immunotherapy controversies to consider such as…

  • How do we choose between docetaxel chemotherapy versus anti-PD1/PD-L1 immunotherapy?
  • Which checkpoint should we choose?
  • Is the PD-L1 biomarker useful and important?
  • Do the company assays differ?
Dr Jack West

Dr Jack West

Dr Jack West (Seattle) got the ball rolling on some of these issues earlier this month, generating quite a spirited and useful debate on Twitter, demonstrating that clinical decisions in this area are not as cut and dried as many might think.

In addition, we spoke to a number of lung cancer experts in Vienna for their perspectives on the data, the biomarkers, treatment paradigms and other critical issues.

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Have you ever sat in a freezing cold scientific session and been so engrossed in the compelling presentations that followed, you simply forgot to take notes? Not one. That actually happened to me at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Philadelphia this year in one of the many fringe sessions that I attended.

Reading Terminal Clock

Reading Terminal Clock, Philadelphia

Granted, the hot topic of the conference was undoubtedly checkpoint inhibition, but I was anxious to escape to the comfort of some meaty and familiar basic and translational science, namely MYC.  MYC is largely thought to be a difficult to target, even undruggable protein, and along with RAS and p53, represents a formidable challenge for cancer researchers.  These three oncogenic proteins alone are probably responsible for more drug resistance developing and even death from cancer than any other proteins in a patient with advanced disease.

For cancer patients with advanced disease, the clock is ticking on time they have left.

Solve these three problems (MYC, RAS and p53) and we may have a shot at dramatically improving outcomes. As Dr Gerard Evans (Cambridge) noted:

“I think it’s fair to say that we don’t really know why interruption of any oncogenic signal actually kills cancer cells, but one of the reasons that we’re interested in MYC is because it seems to be a common downstream effector of many, maybe all cancers.”

Sure, the road to success is paved with an enormous graveyard of failures, just as metastatic melanoma was before checkpoint blockade came along, ironically.  What I heard at AACR both inspired and filled me with greater confidence… we’re finally getting somewhere.

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One of the obvious learnings from the American Association of Clinical Research (AACR) meeting earlier this week was that we are coming to the end of the low hanging fruit opportunities for checkpoint inhibitors as monotherapies.

Speaking with numerous company people in this space, there was wide consensus on that point. As one clinical lead put it succinctly, “From here on out, it’s going to get way more complicated – had a low grade headache develop after the very first science session I attended – and it’s still there after two days!”

How many of us know that feeling all too well?  AACR always has the heaviest science load of any cancer conference we attend each year. Sure there’s some nice clinical data, but that is like nibbling on the light appetizers before the 20 course banquet. You need much stamina and fortitude to survive the brain fog at AACR. Then there’s the glee at snagging some key poster handouts at the meeting, only to be rapidly diminished when you try to read the 4pt print post hoc and realise your eyes cannot focus easily.

Looking at the long list of topics I want to cover in the in-depth post meeting analysis for a ‘lighter’ post, especially given that it’s Friday after a very long week, that sinking feeling hit home hard – there are no lightweight topics at AACR.

The other day, we posted about the promising data in triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), following on from the Genentech and Merck presentations at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS). These data surprised many folks, mostly because they didn’t consider breast cancer to be an immunogenic tumour – nor is lung cancer in the broader scheme of things for that matter – yet we are seeing some nice durable responses in both tumour types with checkpoint inhibitors.

In other words, our definition and perceptions must change as we redefine how we identify and think of possible ‘responsive’ cancers to these agents.

So where are likely heading next?

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Quick Reminder: Today is the last day for the AACR Special – the discount ends at midnight ET tonight. We may not offer this rate again as it’s a limited time only deal!

Recently, Merck have been on a roll in the immuno-oncology space, with the announcement that their anti-PD–1 antibody, pembrolizumab (Keytruda), beat out BMS’s anti-CTLA4 antibody, ipilimumab (Yervoy) in a Phase 3 head-to-head frontline trial in metastatic melanoma. The two primary endpoints of OS and PFS were met and the trial will therefore be stopped early based on the IDMC recommendation. No further details are available until the presentation.

merck_logoThe data from the KEYNOTE–006 study is being presented at the annual American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) next month in the opening plenary session by Dr Antoni Ribas (UCLA).

While it’s nice to see evidence that one checkpoint inhibitor is potentially superior to another, in the long run, combinations are likely to be the best way forward.  This approach is more likely to yield improved responses in immunogenic tumours, but also to make non-immunogenic tumours more responsive, thereby improving patient outcomes further.

This begs the all important question – what hints from new emerging data can we glean that will help us figure out novel combination approaches with checkpoint inhibitors?

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With all the heightened interest in checkpoint inhibitors of late, I wanted to continue my series on what did we learn from the updated data at ESMO that was different from ASCO? Last week we discussed gastric and bladder cancers, this week it’s the turn of lung cancer, or more specifically, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

By chance, some interesting announcements have also happened since ESMO with the third quarter earnings calls going on from the main players in this space, which also add colour to the developments in this niche. BMS, for example, announced that they expect their rolling NDA for Opdivo in lung cancer to be completed before the year end and will be presenting the CHECKMATE 063 data this week, while Merck announced their Breakthrough therapy designation for Keytruda in lung cancer this morning.

All in all, this makes the lung cancer space a lot more exciting than it was at ASCO, where the response to the data was fairly muted.

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