It really doesn’t feel like a year since we were at ESMO in Copenhagen, in what was probably the most exciting meeting of the year in many ways.
With the ASCO abstract deadline being in Jan/Feb, ESMO offers a great opportunity for companies to have another major slot in the calendar to present ground breaking data. In some ways, having positive data at a European meeting can actually amplify positive studies that might otherwise get lost in the noise at ASCO, which is almost becoming too big.
So what’s in store now that the meeting is upon us?
There are some large and small trials with important data on the first two days that bear thinking about and further discussion.
Here’s our take on the first batch of readouts, including some surprises…
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There has been considerable focus on the impact of cancer immunotherapy and checkpoint blockade in particular in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) of late, with approval of several agents in the 1L and 2L metastatic setting, as well as positive results reported in stage 3 unresectable disease earlier this year.
To date, the approvals have focused on monotherapies in second-line (nivolumab, pembrolizumab and atezolizumab) allcomers, as well as in 1L in two cases i.e. for people who are PD-L1 High expressers (≥ 50%) for pembrolizumab or allcomers in combination with chemotherapy (pembrolizumab).
Today as part of their 2Q earnings call details, AstraZeneca ($AZN) announced that the MYSTIC trial exploring the combination of the anti-PD-L1 antibody, durvalumab (Imfinzi), plus anti-CTLA–4 antibody, tremelimumab, unfortunately missed the interim endpoint of progression-free survival (PFS).
This is the first dual IO-IO combo readout in this setting and while disappointing, the results aren’t entirely surprising, as regular readers will no doubt realise.
We are now awaiting several other trial readouts in 1L NSCLC, including Merck’s phase 3 confirmatory trial for pembrolizumab plus chemo and Genentech/Roche’s IMpower150 trial, which explores atezolizumab in combination with chemotherapy, with and without the anti-VEGF inhibitor, bevacizumab (Avastin).
For historical reference, we originally wrote up our perspectives on the 1L NSCLC landscape in January this year then followed that up with a provocative post outlining out predictions on what to expect earlier this month, including the projected miss in PFS for AstraZeneca’s IO combo.
So what does this latest data mean for AZN?
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Berlin: Checkpoint Charlie
With a series of inconsistent results involving phase 3 trials involving checkpoint antibody therapy, even in similar indications, it’s time to get down and dirty and look at some of the factors that might be influencing the outcomes since three of the five approved anti-PD(L)1 products have now been similarly affected.
It’s an interesting and intriguing conundrum, to be sure…
Instead of obeying traffic rules, with immune checkpoints maybe we need to consider following immunology rules instead 🙂
The potential hidden answers, however, might be surprising to some readers.
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Back in January this year, we posted an early look on what to expect from the evolving 1L NSCLC landscape following the controversial FDA submission of Merck’s pembrolizumab with chemotherapy. This lead to subsequent approval in May.
Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin July 2017
At that time, quite a few people were shocked and surprised that the phase 2 KEYNOTE–021 Cohort G data presented ESMO was neatly parlayed into accelerated approval in the US.
Since then, a lot has happened and now many readers are on tenterhooks as we await the next round of lung cancer trial results in the upfront setting.
First up is AstraZeneca’s MYSTIC trial exploring an IO-IO combination with durvalumab plus tremelimumab. Merck’s confirmatory trial for pembrolizumab plus chemo is also expected in the fall – will it support the accelarated approval – or not? Meanwhile, we also await Roche/Genentech’s IMpower150 study evaluating their checkpoint inhibitor, atezolizumab, in combination with chemotherapy by the year end.
These are quite different strategies with diverse endpoints so following them closely will be key to understanding what happens next. Based on what we’ve seen in lung cancer to date, the roller coaster looks set to continue. The C-suite shenanigans have only added to the intrigue and mystique – do they mean anything? Who knows, but we’re focusing on the hard data i.e. science and the clinical clues that are available.
It’s all to play for and many readers wrote in asking for an update on the landscape and what to expect now that we’re much nearer to the shoes actually dropping.
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It amuses me to realise that I’ve been writing about and following PARP inhibition since 2006 or so, when the field was in that twilight zone of early drug development between preclinical and clinical, thus just beginning to hit some sort of consciousness and broader interest in cancer research.
The AACR Molecular Targets meeting in 2009 was the first scientific meeting I covered as a science writer on the old Pharma Strategy Blog, which focused on early drug development from preclinical to phase 2 – after that I would rapidly lose interest and move on to the next new shiny scientific lure to research and discuss. No doubt this eager new writer ran about like an overenthusiastic little puppy in the poster halls chatting to scientists about their research, much to the amusement of the more staid press room, who at that time probably never ventured out of the darkened basement gloom.
In one of the press briefings there, I met an engaging and thoughtful scientist who was presenting his poster on PARP and synthetic lethality. He kindly took the time to explain in plain English a commonsense analogy that was most helpful for grasping complex concepts. Having sat through several long talks from luminaries in the field such as Drs Hillary Calvert and Alan Ashworth that covered double strand breaks and DNA repair mechanisms, it was a most welcome respite in the hurly burly of the conference!
Imagine his imagery…
You have a four legged coffee table or wooden chair and one of the legs breaks off or is damaged. The table remains standing, albeit less stable than before. Now a second leg breaks, and inevitably, the table is so unstable that it falls over.
Once you grasp that simple analogy for synthetic lethality, you have the basic idea of DNA double strand breaks and how inefficient repair can lead to vulnerabilities in the tumour that can be exploited.
The scientist I spoke to in Boston back in 2009 was Dr Mark O’Connor.
He was involved in DNA damage response research at a little known private company in Cambridge, UK called KuDos, who were subsequently acquired by AstraZeneca. Nearly a decade on and Dr O’Connor is still at the company; he now heads up their DNA damage response area.
Dr Mark O’Connor, AZN
With olaparib (Lynparza) since approved by the FDA in ovarian cancer and slated for the ASCO 2017 plenary session for HER2- breast cancer, things have certainly changed a lot since those early heady days of KuDos and the R&D journey has not been without its notable ups and downs along the way.
In Chicago earlier this month, I had the pleasure of catching up again with Dr O’Connor to learn more about the journey, and importantly, where things are going next. It’s quite an interesting roller coaster ride, to be sure!
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Until recently, we followed the race to market in EGFR T790M lung cancer with Clovis’s rociletinib and AstraZeneca’s osimertinib (Tagrisso). In phase 2, AstraZeneca caused quite a stir when they came from behind and leapfrogged their biotech rival with a large global randomized controlled trial seemingly out of nowhere. They never looked back.
Can they do the same thing with durvalumab (Imfinzi), one of their IO therapies that targets PD-L1?
If there’s one thing that many astute observers of the IO space have learned this week it’s that irrational exuberance and the hopeful sentiment that ‘everything’ will just tweak the immune system and work positively no matter what has thankfully come to an end.
We’ve seen several highs and lows already with Merck’s pembrolizumab gaining accelerated approval in 1L NSCLC in allcomers when combined with chemotherapy and AstraZeneca reporting positive phase 3 data for durvalumab in unresectable (stage 3) NSCLC based on meeting the study endpoint (PFS).
There is much to be learned because the nivolumab disaster in 1L NSCLC last year was not a singular aberration given that durvalumab has seen some missteps in the past and even atezolizumab had some unexpected news with urothelial cancer this week (Check out our insights), as compared to chemo in the second line setting. Just like mutations, there will be many more to come, perhaps even some additional ones before the year is out.
What about today’s news from AstraZeneca in unresectable NSCLC?
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We’re overdue a roundup and discussion on various key topics of interest to BSB readers, so here goes…
Today’s topics include an in-depth look at the impact of some negative events:
- Kite and the cerebral oedema death with axi-cel
- Genentech’s atezolizumab OS miss in urothelial cancer
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Dr James Gulley is Chief of the Genito-Urinary malignancies branch and Director of the Medical Oncology service at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the National Institutes of Health. He’s a world-leading GU cancer expert and at the forefront of pioneering research to make cancer immunotherapy work in prostate cancer.
We last spoke to him at ASCO 2015 (See post: The future of prostate cancer immunotherapy). You can listen to excerpts from this interview on Episode 4 of the Novel Targets podcast (See: The non-inflamed tumour show).
Almost two years on, and new research by Dr Gulley and colleagues from the NCI shows that the STING pathway may have an important role to play in prostate cancer immunotherapy. Activation of this pathway through a novel mechanism could turn a cold non-inflamed tumor into a more inflamed or hotter one in men with advanced prostate cancer. How cool is that?!
At the 2017 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) that was recently held in Washington DC, Dr Gulley graciously spoke to BSB about some of the novel trials that are underway at the NCI, with the aim of making cancer immunotherapy work in men with advanced prostate cancer.
Dr Jim Gulley, NCI at AACR17
This is the seventh expert interviews in our series from AACR17 where we explore the conundrum:
How does Dr Gulley plan to light the immune camp fire in prostate cancer?
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Over the years we’ve interviewed folks from numerous pharma and biotech companies here on BSB, including those with targeted therapies (small and large), as well as immunotherapies.
Some companies have small pipelines and may be forced by circumstances to explore what they have or seek collaborations with bigger partners.
For big pharmas with large pockets plus broad and deeper pipelines, the challenge is quite different – how do you prioritise potential combinations and tumour targets given it is impossible to evaluate them all in the clinic? How do you create differential advantage and value when you’re relatively later to market compared to your competitors?
In the BSB spotlight this week we have two researchers in clinical development and R&D from the same company, who happen to have both elements in their pipeline in areas of high competition.
Part one of our latest mini-series explores the IO side of the business as we look ‘Through the Keyhole’ at what’s going on in terms of biomarkers, monotherapy trials, combination studies (both IO-IO and IO-targeted) and what to expect in the near-term future later this year. It’s a wide ranging, candid, and fascinating discussion that highlights a lot of potential in terms of what could happen with a large pipeline.
In all, it makes for rather interesting reading and certainly changed how I perceived the company’s efforts in the IO sphere (for the better, I might add). So what’s fascinating about their approach and what can we learn from their progress to date?
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We’ve been saying for a while that 2017 and onwards would be when we start to see a few IO combination trials start to shake out. Interestingly, that process seems to have already started, if recent news is any thing to go by.
With this in mind, the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) coming up this weekend gives us a timely moment to explore combinations that are looking interesting… or not.
In the last of our AACR 2017 Conference Previews, we take a look at what to expect on this year’s program in the IO and Checkpoint arena. In short, it’s quite a lot and not without some controversy either!
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