Biotech Strategy Blog

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

Posts from the ‘Hematology’ category

Coney Island Roller Coaster

In the roller coaster of life that is oncology R&D, molecules come and molecules go… a rare few reach blockbuster heights while many others are quietly packed off to dog drug heaven, never to be seen or heard of again.

This is also very true of targets as well…

What about the in-between space?

Unfortunately, that’s where most molecules and cancer targets end up – into a deep black nothingness where we seek the high affinity targets with low grade side effects – and fall short in some way. It’s a frustrating place to be, to be sure.

One of these conundrums is compounds against CD123 (IL3Rα), which have been in the spotlight on and off this year and are turning out to be a rather mixed bag.

After our recent update on Cellectis and their CD123 direct CAR T cell therapy (UCART123), I wasn’t expecting to write any more on this until ASH in mid December. How wrong that prediction turned out to be!

Today we have quite a few things to discuss on this topic, so if interested in CD123 in hematologic malignancies and going beyond that to find better targets in AML then this is the poster for you…

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It’s been quite a roller coaster week so far for CAR T cell therapies, with Gilead announcing its intended acquisition of Kite Pharma on Monday.  If that wasn’t enough, Wednesday brought another surprise – the FDA approved a rare double header – for Novartis’s CTL019, now known as tisagenlecleucel (Kymriah) for pediatric and young adult patients with a form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), as well as a new indication for Genentech’s tocilizumab (Actemra) for the treatment of CAR T cell-induced severe or life-threatening cytokine release syndrome (CRS) in patients two years of age and older.

Inevitably there has been much hullabaloo and much anticipation over the expected price tag that might accompany the first cell therapy product approved in the US. Whatever your view on this, many of us were no doubt relieved it came in under $500K ($475K, with no charge for the product in the first month if there was a manufacturing failure or no response).  While undoubtedly pricey, frankly it could have been a lot worse given the relatively small patient population.

Of course, the approved therapy isn’t the only expected high ticket item – there’s also hospital costs (including highly trained physicians and nurses), ICU costs (for very sick patients), supportive care costs (including tocilizumab if CRS occurs), not to mention any lab, diagnostic or monitoring tests required. All of these will no doubt push the total bill nearer to $1M.  In children though, the lifetime value of curative intent and many additional years of life is a much easier to grasp concept for payers than adding a few extra months at a high cost in adults.

These issues do raise the stakes for Kite and what they plan to do strategically in aggressive lymphomas, where there is a larger pool of eligible people for therapy, which must be offset by lower response rates (vs. pALL) and likely lower durability based on the data we’ve seen to date.  If we are truly moving into a world of value based pricing in the US, then efficacy and tolerability will ultimately have an impact on the perceived cost and value of treatment.

As Warren Buffett, the famous value investor has been want to say, “Price is what you pay, value is what you get.”

Whoa that’s a lot to think about – who knows what Friday may bring at this rate – and we still have the Kite Axi-Cel approval in aggressive lymphomas to go yet…

Meanwhile, there’s also a high unmet medical need for new effective treatment options in Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), especially in the relapsed/refractory setting, which is why we’re firm supporters of the Beat AML trial that the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society are pioneering. (See: Interview with Dr Brian Druker).

There’s also interest from several companies in a variety of novel targets, including CD123.

Notre Dame, Paris

Cellectis recently announced the enrollment of the first AML patient into their trial of an allogeneic CAR T cell therapy (UCART123) targeting CD123.

Quite aside from the issue of addressing whether such a product can be administered safely and effectively, one major why there is notable interest in Cellectis is because an allogeneic CAR T cell therapy offers the potential of a much cheaper off-the-shelf product as well as enhanced performance from an abundance of fit immune cells from healthy donors rather than tired or exhausted ones from people who are sick, thereby reducing the risk of manufacturing failure.

While in Paris, I spoke with Cellectis Chief Medical Officer, Loan Hoang-Sayag, MD about the trial design and CD123 as a target in AML.

This is the third and final post in our summer mini-series on gene editing and allogeneic CAR T cell therapy.

The first in the series featured an interview with Professor Waseem Qasim (Link), and the second with Cellectis CSO, Dr Philippe Duchateau (Link).

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Paris – amazingly it’s now 3 years since we interviewed Cellectis (NASDAQ: $CLLS) CEO André Choulika and CSO Philippe Duchateau (See post: Can Cellectis revolutionise CAR T cell therapy):

Cellectis CSO CEO

Cellectis Senior Management – Drs Duchateau and Choulika

Since then, we’ve followed the company over time, including an interview with one of their leading scientists, Dr Julianne Smith at ASH 2014, followed by the initial results of their first allogeneic CAR T cell therapy UCART19 presented at #ASH15 by Professor Qasim.

It’s hard to believe 3 years have gone by so quickly! As regular readers know what we often do on BSB is follow stories longitudinally, so while in Paris for an Immuno-Oncology Summit we thought it a rather timely opportunity to revisit Cellectis and take stock of where they’re at and ask what the future may hold for them?

With the recent news that Gilead have acquired Kite Pharma, there’s going to be a lot of interest in what companies such as Cellectis are doing to bring allogeneic “off the shelf” CAR T cell therapy to market.

This is the penultimate post in our summer mini-series on gene editing and allogeneic CAR T cell therapy and features a candid interview with Dr Philippe Duchateau, Chief Scientific Officer, at Paris based Cellectis.

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Yesterday Novartis announced the initial data from the JULIET trial in relapsed/refractory aggressive lymphomas such as diffuse large cell lymphomas (DLBCL) that were presented at the upcoming International Conference on Malignant Lymphoma (iCML) meeting in Lugano.

Here at BSB, we’ve been following CAR T cell therapy developments in earnest since 2012 when Penn and Novartis first announced their collaboration to develop what is now known as CTL019.

Five years on, we now have two such cell therapy products already filed with the Health Authorities and the JULIET trial will likely be the third indication submitted by the end of the year. This niche is now well established for regular readers and not something that has been a flash in the pan over a year or so.

There are a few interesting points of note on the CAR T cell front that are also worth exploring in conjunction with this news.

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Long time attendees at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) know that there are usually interesting posters and sessions buried on the last day of the meeting.

This year was no exception, with a major symposium on CAR T Cell Cancer Immunotherapy chaired by Michael Jensen MD (pictured right).

BSB readers will recall we interviewed him at the 2016 BMT Tandem meeting in Honolulu (See post: Optimizing CD19 CAR T cell therapy).  Excerpts from this interview also featured in Episode 14 – Cell Therapy Pioneers of the Novel Targets Podcast.

The CAR T symposium on the last day of AACR was one of my highlights of the meeting. The three speakers were:

  • Michael Jensen, MD (Seattle Children’s) Engineering Next Generation CAR T cells using Synthetic Biology-Inspired Technologies
  • Terry J. Fry, MD (National Cancer Institute) Defining and overcoming limitations of CD19 CAR immunotherapy in pediatric ALL
  • Christine E. Brown, PhD (City of Hope) Progress and Challenge in CAR T Cell Therapy for Brain Tumors

Each of these presentations would merit a full blog post in their own right, but in this particular post we’re focusing on CAR T cell therapy targeting glioblastoma multiforme (GBM).

GBM is the most common primary malignant brain tumor, and one with a dismal prognosis – the 5-year survival rate is only around 5%, so there is also a high unmet medical need for new effective treatment options. This devastating disease has proven to be a miserable graveyard for Pharma over the last decade, with many agents unfortunately ending up in dog drug heaven.

After her AACR17 presentation, Dr Brown kindly spoke to BSB.

This post is part of our series of thouight leader interviews from AACR17. It also continues our ongoing posts on the adoptive cellular therapy landscape, and in particular, CAR modified T cells.

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It’s finally time…

US Capitol Building, DC

By popular request from BSB readers, we have a CAR T cell therapy preview of the main abstracts to watch out for, including talks and posters, and what emerging themes to expect are likely to be.

If you are registered on the AACR site and signed in, then clicking on any of the abstracts highlighted in this review will enable you to add any interesting ones you fancy to your conference itinerary.

There’s a surprising amount to cover this year, especially when we consider the incredible work that’s ongoing to address a number of suboptimal aspects in the construct developments.  It’s continuing to progress at warp speed, so hold onto your hats and buckle down for our latest rock around the AACR clock.

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Hans Bishop, Juno

After a rocky 2016 for Juno with JCAR015 and the trial that imploded unexpectedly and badly, the CEO Hans Bishop quietly announced that announced that ROCKET has been abandoned:

“2016 was a year of progress and learning for Juno and the cancer immunotherapy field. We continue to experience encouraging signs of clinical benefit in our trial addressing NHL, but we also recognize the unfortunate and unexpected toxicity we saw in our trial addressing ALL with JCAR015. We have decided not to move forward with the ROCKET trial or JCAR015 at this time.”

A strange year of hubris attracting nemesis might be another way of describing the events for some observers.

We covered the Juno roller coaster and events in July and December 2016 for those who want to catch up on the full history of this unfortunate and ongoing debacle:

Where does the latest Juno news leave things and what can we expect going forward?

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ASH16 in San Diego

Today we resume our coverage from the recent American Society of Hematology (ASH16) annual meeting with a look at some fascinating and highly compelling science that was presented in an obscure and hard to find tiny hall in San Diego.

This story is also about how a small biotech company that many casual observers may not even be aware of, is taking advantage of advances recent research to grab a clinical lead in a very specialised field in oncology that may yield a novel approach worthy of taking notice of..

Genomics is increasingly becoming a core element of cancer research. Think of it as the alphabet soup of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes.

Once we understand and identify the genomic landscape in health and diseases such as cancer, it allows numerous platforms to evolve whereby those unique differences can be identified (as driver vs. passenger mutations, for example), explored in depth, and later key ones targeted with therapeutics. Inevitably, there are many ways to do this.

Much of the focus in genomics has been on DNA, but what about RNA?

RNA is important because a mistake – even a single nucleotide – can be devastating to the cell, and a reliable, repeatable method of RNA processing is necessary to ensure cell survival. Mis-splicing can thus lead to the development of new point mutations and genomic instability deep in the cell nucleus, potentially causing the evolution of certain cancers.

Paradoxically, these aberrations also offer novel therapeutic targets – but are they druggable?

What we are exploring here is a completely different approach, both in terms of how a fledgling company is funded and also the type of research that is conducted.

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Much of the focus in multiple myeloma over the last decade has focused on two key drug classes – proteasome inhibitors and IMiDs – with some recent approvals for monoclonal antibodies targeting key proteins on the surface of malignant myeloma cells such as CD38.

#ASH16 in San Diego

Combinations of these core therapies have lead to a noticeable improvement in outcomes for people living with the disease – from 3-4 years over a decade ago to now approaching 10 years post diagnosis.

If we want to continuously beat the status quo and improve on the chronicity, however, it is likely that several things will need to happen:

  • Better understand mechanisms of resistance that induce relapse
  • Develop predictive biomarkers of response
  • Identify novel therapeutic targets

Here. we focus on the latest preclinical findings that were recently presented at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) in San Diego and explore where the future might be headed in this disease.

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As we move from monotherapies to combinations in the immuno-oncology space, we start to see some intriguing ideas being explored from additional checkpoints to vaccines to neoantigens to immune agonists to oncolytic viruses. There are numerous ways to evaluate how to boost or jumpstart more immune cells upfront in the hope of seeing better efficacy.

One way to do this is to better understand the tumour microenvironment.

Wall of people at ASH16 in San Diego

If we know what’s wrong under the hood, we might be better able to make the immune system get going… more gas, faulty starter motor, dead battery, loose wire, broken fan belt? All these things and more might be a problem so you can see that diagnosing the issue up from from basic and translational work might be instructive for clinical trials.

If you don’t know what problem you’re trying to fix or repair then you might as well be throwing mud at the wall. Just as we don’t expect a car mechanic to suggest changing the battery or starter-motor without first diagnosing the issue, so understanding the tumour microenvironment in each different cancer or disease might also be a helpful strategy.

At the recent American Society of Hematology annual meeting (#ASH16), there was a fascinating sceintifc workshop that focused on this very concept – what’s going on under the hood and how do we go about fixing it?

Here we explore these ideas via an interview with a thought leader and specialist in the field. What he had to say was very interesting and candid indeed.

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