Biotech Strategy Blog

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

Posts from the ‘Translational Medicine’ category

A look through the window at the evolving KRAS landscape

It’s time for an important update on the KRAS landscape and emerging opportunities in this niche.

I’ve mentioned this a few times, but the real kicker is going to come from rational combinations in different settings.  Those companies who figure these out will emerge a stronger player than their competitors who focus on monotherapy.

With this idea in mind it behooves us to be alert and aware of what’s going on in the broader landscape beyond selective KRAS inhibitors against certain mutants.

Here we discuss the latest findings from two such targets, each quite different and yet both could have important roles to play going forward…

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For the final postcard in our 2020 summer mini-series on the potential of immunometabolism in oncology R&D, we’re taking an in-depth look at the ways in which metabolic programming can overcome immunosuppression in the tumour microenvironment (TME), as well as looking at additional novel ways in which the fitness of T cells can be impacted.

We’ve already covered glutaminase, arginine, p38 and others, yet there are other metabolic effects to consider too, as we discover in our latest expert interview.  In the penultimate postcard, we looked at mitochondrial phenotypes and how they can impact both mitochondrial and T cell fitness, which are important aspects in making adoptive cell therapy (ACT) based approaches such as TILs and CAR-T cell therapies more effective.

Deep thoughts on immunometabolism and how it can impact antitumour response

These themes show up yet again, but in a rather different context because T cell fitness can also impact immune checkpoint blockade, oncogenic targeting, as well as transcriptional and epigenetic approaches.

As much as we have been slowing building up the evidence during this series, in the finale it’s now time to kick up things up a notch or two and draw some unifying ideas together.

We accomplish this feat with a rising young star in this particular niche, Dr Ping-Chih Ho, who is at the University of Lausanne.

He kindly spoke to BSB about his pioneering and prolific research, some of the critical questions he has sought to answer, plus what he sees are important future directions to consider in metabolism research.

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Not-in-San Diego: The second part of the 2020 virtual annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR VM2) is over, and now the fun part of looking at some of the key data presented commences.

If you listened in to some of the sessions live like BSB did then you would have heard many of the chairs say how surprised they were to have 1,200 to 1,500 or more people listening live – AACR are to be congratulated on promoting access to science from around the world.

We all miss the personal interaction of a meeting but given the high cost of attending an annual conference, a virtual meeting does promote the democratization of science, and we are all for that. Given the ongoing uncertainties around the control of Covid–19, with all the travel and large crowds involved, it remains uncertain when we’ll all feel comfortable going to major conferences again.

One presentation that caught the attention of many at AACR VM2 including ourselves was data on a novel way to target IL–18 from the lab of Dr Aaron Ring (Yale), which was presented by his postdoc, Dr Ting Zhou at the meeting. A paper was also published simultaneously in Nature last week.

We’ve been following Dr Ring’s work on IL–18 for some time so it was good to finally see it published.

As part of our ongoing AACR20 coverage, Dr Ring kindly spoke to BSB to explain how his research led to the discovery of a novel way to target IL–18 for cancer immunotherapy as well as the plans to translate this into the clinic through a spin-off company, Simcha Therapeutics.

Will this novel way of targeting IL–18 be a winner? We take a closer look in this post.

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With all the furore surrounding the new developments with KRAS G12C inhibitors in lung and colon cancer, it is easy to forget that there are plenty of other promising related ideas in the pipeline too. After all, there’s more than one KRAS mutation that can act as an oncogenic driver in patients that can portend poorer prognosis.

Aside from the obvious small molecules, there are other modalities to consider.

Here’s one such novel design that caught our attention — it has the potential to be elevated into an elegant platform approach with different molecules targeting a variety of critical mutations in tumour cells including KRAS G12D, which is prevalent in colon and pancreatic cancers.

I’ve had my eye on this work for a couple of years and now it’s a good time to showcase it in the spotlight given the sheer energy and attention focused on this niche…

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One of the interesting questions raised by the recently announced and much-discussed Juno/Celgene collaboration is whether you really need a Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cell therapy in your portfolio to succeed as a global cancer immunotherapy company?

One leading cancer immunotherapy company that believes you don’t is Roche.  At ASCO 2015 I had the privilege to talk about this with a leading cancer scientist, William Pao, MD PhD (pictured below). Dr Pao formerly worked with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Harold Varmus at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and subsequently led the Hematology-Oncology Division at Vanderbilt. He joined Roche in July 2014 to lead their early development of innovative oncology new products (see press release).

Dr William Pao Roche

I particularly enjoyed Dr Pao’s discussion of the T-cell centric strategic framework around which the Roche/Genentech cancer immunotherapy portfolio strategy is based.

If you haven’t done so already, do listen to Episode 3 of the Novel Targets podcast (ASCO Lung Cancer Show) in which you can hear an excerpt from my interview with Dr Pao.

This is the first in a series of interviews with scientific leaders at companies at the forefront of cancer research.

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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 Evan (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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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today approved Roche/Genentech’s obinutuzumab (Gazyva), also known as GA101, for untreated Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) in combination with the chemotherapy chlorambucil. Updated CLL11 trial data will be presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (twitter #ASH13) in New Orleans from December 7-10. Gazyva is the first drug with a Breakthrough Therapy Designation to be approved by the FDA.

“Gazyva is an important new medicine for people with newly diagnosed chronic lymphocytic leukemia as it more than doubled the time a person lived without their disease worsening compared to chlorambucil alone,” said Hal Barron, M.D., chief medical officer and head of Global Product Development in a press release this morning.

Blog readers who attended the Roche analyst event in Chicago during the ASCO annual meeting in June will have noted that Roche’s long-term corporate strategy is focused on combining cancer drugs to improve treatment outcomes; a theme echoed by Charles Sawyers, President of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) during his ASCO Science of Oncology award lecture on “Overcoming Resistance to Cancer Drug Therapy“.

One of the combinations that Roche COO Daniel O’Day highlighted in the analyst event at ASCO was obinutuzumab/GA101 (Gazyva) with GDC-0199 (ABT-199) for the treatment of B-cell hematological malignancies such as CLL & non Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL). Obinutuzumab is a glyco-engineered CD20 antibody, while GDC-0199 is a Bcl-2 inhibitor. Both cause apoptosis (cell death) through complementary mechanisms of action.

An abstract on the preclinical data for this combination will be presented at the ASH annual meeting in New Orleans. A phase 1 clinical trial in CLL with this combination is currently underway and recruiting patients (NCT01685892).

I had the great pleasure at the recent AACR-NCI-EORTC Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics meeting in Boston to talk with Deepak Sampath, PhD the leader of Genentech’s Bcl-2 preclinical research about the rational for the obinutuzumab plus GDC-0199 combination.

In this SoundCloud, Dr Sampath introduces himself and what his lab does at Genentech:

What he said during the interview makes for interesting reading, and suggests this combo could have blockbuster potential!

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In my final post from the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), I wanted to share some more reflections from my time in the poster sessions. It’s certainly not all mice, and test tubes, and there were some interesting data from biotechnology companies to consider.

Sometimes the data presented is completely new, other times if you are following a product or company you can see the next stage of development and track progress. AACR posters are often not available if you don’t attend the meeting.

Additionally companies use AACR to showcase potential early licensing opportunities and new targets, so like Bitcoins a few nuggets can be mined from the meeting.  Here are a few examples of what the AACR poster sessions had to offer from a biotech perspective.

Gilead $GILD – Following a new combination

At the 2012 American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting in Atlanta last year, Russell Burke and colleagues from the Knight Cancer Institute at OHSU (Brian Druker’s lab) presented a poster (abstract 3876) on the rational for Combining idelalisib (GS-1101/CAL-101), a PI3 kinase delta (PI3Kδ) inhibitor and a novel highly selective Spleen tyrosine kinase (Syk) inhibitor, GS-9973. In their abstract they noted that,

Simultaneous inhibition of multiple pathways downstream of the BCR [B-cell receptor] has the potential to result in a synergistic response that may overcome the resistance observed with single compound use” 

Furthermore, they also demonstrated that,

both PI3Kδ and Syk inhibition reduces CLL survival” and that “combination therapy targeting both PI3Kd and Syk may provide a novel treatment approach, especially in patients with poor risk disease that may not respond optimally to single agents.”

This year at the AACR annual meeting, a Gilead poster (abstract  26) evaluated the safety, pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of this combination in female healthy subjects.  The poster concluded:

  • Co-administration of GS-9973 with idelalisib displayed markedly higher PD effect vs. either agent alone.
  • Overall, GS-9973 and idelalisib were well tolerated when administered in combination or alone.
  • Phase 2 studies in B cell hematologic malignancies evaluating GS-9973 + idelalisib are ongoing.

We will most likely have to wait to ASH meeting later this year in New Orleans to see what the clinical benefit of this combination is, but you can see how you can follow progress from a poster at ASH, to a poster at AACR and then a phase II or III clinical trial presentation at ASH or ASCO in the future.

Ariad $ARIA – a new potential target for ponatinib?

Ponatinib (Iclusig) is a multi-targeted tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) of several targets including Bcr-Abl, FGFR, ALK and RET.  Several posters were presented at AACR last week.  In one that caught my attention (abstract 2084), Ariad researchers showed it is a highly potent inhibitor of activated variants of RET Kinase, which is often dysregulated in medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Vandetanib ($AZN) and cabozantinib ($EXEL) are other multi-kinase inhibitors that received FDA approval in the last year or two for MTC, albeit in different lines of therapy, so the activity of other TKI’s in MTC should not come as a surprise.

The Ariad poster demonstrated the preclinical activity of ponatinib over other TKI’s in variants of RET in MTC and NSCLC.  The poster concluded:

These results provide strong support for the clinical evaluation of ponatinib in patients with RET-driven cancers.”

From a scientific rational the above statement makes sense, but from a commercial perspective it’s more questionable if this were the lead indication.  However, it could make strategic sense to add on small niche indications for a compound that is generating its primary revenue elsewhere.

The challenge is that the medullary thyroid cancer market is not large especially in the relapse setting, as Exelisis have found, plus the tumour is a slow growing one.  While NSCLC sounds promising, the number of NSCLC patients with RET is small (~1%).

This means it will most likely require the screening hundreds of patients to find one patient with RET into a clinical trial, assuming they are willing and meet the inclusion criteria.  This is likely to be an expensive and time-consuming process, so the commercial rational will need to be carefully considered.

BioMarin $BMRN – a prostate cancer licensing opportunity or a “dead donkey”?

Companies also use posters at AACR to showcase potential licensing opportunities and one example I came across was BioMarin’s poster (abstract 2049) for BMN860 a novel CYP17 inhibitor.  Based on some limited preclinical data that showed BMN860 to be more potent than abiraterone acetate (Zytiga), the company are seeking to license out their compound.

Interestingly, the BioMarin poster showed no data comparing BMN860 to other second-generation CYP17 inhibitors such as TAK-700 (orteronel), and the presenter admitted they had no plans to do further preclinical work on it themselves.

Given the costs of bringing a new prostate cancer drug to market and the uncertainty of the market opportunity in the face of generic abiraterone and competition from other CYP17 inhibitors far head in development, it’s hard to see the commercial opportunity for BMN860.

If you are a Pharma BDL professional looking to in-license a novel CYP17 inhibitor, then BioMarin do have one on offer.  However, for those used to British vernacular, it struck me as a “dead donkey” being too little too late to really capitalise on the market opportunity.

This is the end of my coverage of AACR 2013.  I am looking forward to the AACR-EORTC-NCI Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics meeting in Boston later this year.  Given the focus of Boston biotech on cancer drug development, I expect this to be a high quality meeting.

If you are interested in more coverage from AACR 2013, I encourage you to check out Pharma Strategy Blog, which will have some in-depth pieces in the coming days.

Genentech’s next generation PI3-kinase inhibitor, GDC-0032, was the topic of two presentations yesterday at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) taking place in Washington D.C.

Genentech have put substantial resources into developing new agents that target different elements of the PI3K pathway.  These include: GDC-0941, GDC-0980, GDC-0084, GDC-0349, GDC-0068.  At this year’s AACR, data on their latest compound, GDC-0032, was presented. This agent is a selective inhibitor of PI3K alpha, delta and gamma but spares inhibition of the PI3K-beta isoform.

In the New Drugs on the Horizon session, Alan Olivero from Genentech gave a fascinating talk (if you are a medicinal chemist) on how the chemical structure of GDC-0032 was rationally developed. He described how a slight change in structure can lead to a very different selectivity profile.

One way in which GDC-0032 is novel, is that it spares the beta-isoform of PI3K, which Genentech hypothesize may reduce some of the undesired side effects such as effects on metabolism, previously seen with pan PI3K inhibitors such as GDC-0941.

Olivero noted that GDC-0032 has greater maximal efficacy and more potency than GDC-0941 in PI3K alpha mutant xenograft tumors as compared to wild-type ones.

The results of a first-in-human phase 1a dose escalation study for GDC-0032 were presented at AACR 2013 in yesterday’s Clinical Trial Symposium (Abstract LB-64).

Dejan Juric MD (Massachusetts General Hospital) presented promising early clinical data for GDC-0032 in PI3KCA mutant cancers, especially breast cancer.

The results showed that in PI3KCA mutant breast cancer there were 4 cPR (RECIST -30 to -70%) and 2 SD out of 6 patients, all of whom had measurable disease with pre-treatment.  

One confirmed partial response in PI3KCA mutant breast cancer took place after 11 lines of prior therapy in a 74 year old woman with HER2- breast cancer, who subsequently became triple negative.  Another patient with a confirmed partial response had HER2+ ER+ metastatic breast cancer.

While this early data is promising, further clinical trials are needed to validate it.  Dr Juric concluded his presentation by noting that,

“GDC-0032 is being further explored as a single-agent in solid tumors and in combination with endocrine therapies in breast cancer including letrozole and fulvestrant.”

If you are interested in GDC-0032, then other presentations at AACR this week to watch out for are:

Abstract 2382 (Tuesday Apr 9, 8-12 am Poster Section 2, Board 2) Development of predictive biomarker gene expression signatures that associates with drug sensitivity and kinase activation in breast cancer.

Abstract 4470 (Tuesday Apr 9, 1-5 pm Poster Section 41, Board 28) Mechanisms of acquired resistance to the PI3K inhibitors in colorectal cancer cell lines.

The cherry blossoms are finally blooming in Washington DC for the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

With AACR in DC this year, the following traditional Japanese haiku published on the National Park Service website struck me as appropriate for cancer researchers and survivors to reflect on:

Yo no naka wa, Mikka minu ma ni, Sakura kana

“Life is short, like the three day glory of the cherry blossoms.”

Yesterday at AACR was predominantly an educational day, but several studies were highlighted to the assembled media.  One of the late-breaking clinical trials that caught my attention was the preliminary phase 1 data on Genentech’s novel new agent DMUC5754A.

Joyce Liu MD MPH. Photo: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Joyce Liu MD MPH

LB-290 Targeting MUC16 with the Antibody-Drug Conjugate DMUC5754A in patients with platinum-resistant ovarian cancer.  This data will be presented by Joyce Liu, MD, MPH from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the Clinical Trials Symposium on Tuesday, Apr 9 at 4.00 pm.

Dana-Farber issued a press release yesterday  – here’s the link. The picture of Dr Liu is from her Dana-Farber profile.

Ovarian cancer causes more deaths in women than any other cancer of the reproductive organs, with an estimated 20,000 women diagnosed with this cancer each year.  The majority of women are treated with traditional platinum based chemotherapies, and most of these relapse and develop drug-resistant disease.  This makes the development a new novel agent such as DMUC5754A that will treat platinum-resistant ovarian cancer a major potential breakthrough.

In an AACR media release, Dr Liu commented on how the drug works:

“This drug consists of an antibody and a potent toxin joined by a cleavable linker. The antibody identifies a protein, MUC16, which is highly expressed in ovarian cancers, and targets the toxin to kill the cancer cells.”

Liu went on to note that, “Unlike other cancer treatments, the antibody-drug conjugate releases the toxin with relative selectivity to the MUC16-positive cancer cells.  This allows delivery of drugs that would otherwise be too toxic for treatment.”

According to Liu, “If the activity of this drug is confirmed in additional trials, this will represent a novel type of therapy for ovarian cancer, with effectiveness in platinum-resistant ovarian cancer, which is the hardest type of ovarian cancer to treat.”

Genentech are particularly good at sharing early data at AACR, and based on the promising responses in MUC16 IHC 2/3+ patients, this new ADC compound is likely to progress to phase 2 – a compound to watch out for in the future.

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