$20B-plus? Mer­ck keeps rack­ing up PhI­II suc­cess­es, scor­ing on triple neg­a­tive breast can­cer chal­lenge as an­a­lysts dri­ve up peak sales es­ti­mates

Just days af­ter Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb man­aged to sur­prise the an­a­lyst brigade with a Phase III flop for its PD-1 check­point Op­di­vo com­bined with chemo in lung can­cer, Mer­ck’s dom­i­nant team is back with an­oth­er sol­id hit for a par­tic­u­lar­ly tough-to-treat sub­group of breast can­cer pa­tients.

Mer­ck’s Phase III KEYNOTE-522 tri­al con­nect­ed on one of two pri­ma­ry end­points, with their Keytru­da/chemo com­bo elim­i­nat­ing all signs of triple-neg­a­tive breast can­cer — what’s called a patho­log­i­cal com­plete re­sponse — at a sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er rate than chemo alone, re­gard­less of PD-L1 lev­els in the neo-ad­ju­vant set­ting.

That’s an­oth­er first for Mer­ck, which has been steadi­ly rack­ing up new Phase III suc­cess­es for the mar­quee PD-1. In­ves­ti­ga­tors are con­tin­u­ing the tri­al as they wait to see how Keytru­da/chemo did on event-free sur­vival.

As usu­al, we’ll have to wait for a sci­en­tif­ic con­fer­ence to see the hard num­bers. But it’s im­por­tant to note that Mer­ck’s string of suc­cess­es with Keytru­da is al­so a psy­cho­log­i­cal vic­to­ry that can’t be un­der­es­ti­mat­ed. When Bris­tol-My­ers re­leased its lat­est batch of da­ta on Op­di­vo, the com­pa­ny al­so claimed a suc­cess on Part 1a of the Check­mate -227 tri­al, which met the co-pri­ma­ry end­point of OS, “demon­strat­ing a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fit for Op­di­vo plus low-dose Yer­voy (ip­il­i­mum­ab) ver­sus chemother­a­py in pa­tients whose tu­mors ex­press PD-L1 ≥1%.”

An­a­lysts weren’t hav­ing it, though, skep­ti­cal that the drug would beat Keytru­da af­ter see­ing the Keynote-189 da­ta. At this stage of the PD-1 bat­tle, Bris­tol-My­ers is as­sumed to come in be­hind Mer­ck.

The string of suc­cess­es has an­a­lysts com­pet­ing in peak sales fore­casts for Keytru­da. Mizuho’s Mara Gold­stein re­cent­ly not­ed:

News of the fail­ure of BMY’s Check­mate-227 Part 2, OP­DI­VO + chemother­a­py in front­line NSCLC to demon­strate an OS ben­e­fit vs. chemother­a­py alone, fur­ther so­lid­i­fies KEYTRU­DA’s dom­i­nance in this mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar mar­ket op­por­tu­ni­ty, in our view, and is sup­port­ive of our in­vest­ment the­sis. We es­ti­mate that KEYTRU­DA sales will sur­pass $20 bil­lion by 2024, and that KEYTRU­DA will re­main the dom­i­nant check­point in­hibitor in the mar­ket.

Gold­stein added this morn­ing that every­thing is still look­ing rosy for Mer­ck as the com­pa­ny looks to add to its lead in triple neg­a­tive breast can­cer. Plus, the Eu­ro­peans are help­ing with an­oth­er pos­i­tive opin­ion for Mer­ck.

In ad­di­tion to TNBC, MRK al­so an­nounced a pos­i­tive CHMP opin­ion for KEYTRU­DA+IN­LY­TA in 1L RCC based on piv­otal Phase III KEYNOTE-426 da­ta – im­proved OS, PFS, and ORR vs SU­TENT. We think this lends sup­port to our view that KEYTRU­DA should pull far­ther ahead of com­peti­tors as the lead­ing check­point in­hibitor, and is sup­port­ive of our in­vest­ment the­sis.

So­cial im­age: Shut­ter­stock

Im­ple­ment­ing re­silience in the clin­i­cal tri­al sup­ply chain

Since January 2020, the clinical trials ecosystem has quickly evolved to manage roadblocks impeding clinical trial integrity, and patient care and safety amid a global pandemic. Closed borders, reduced air traffic and delayed or canceled flights disrupted global distribution, revealing how flexible logistics and supply chains can secure the timely delivery of clinical drug products and therapies to sites and patients.

In fi­nal days at Mer­ck, Roger Perl­mut­ter bets big on a lit­tle-known Covid-19 treat­ment

Roger Perlmutter is spending his last days at Merck, well, spending.

Two weeks after snapping up the antibody-drug conjugate biotech VelosBio for $2.75 billion, Merck announced today that it had purchased OncoImmune and its experimental Covid-19 drug for $425 million. The drug, known as CD24Fc, appeared to reduce the risk of respiratory failure or death in severe Covid-19 patients by 50% in a 203-person Phase III trial, OncoImmune said in September.

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UP­DAT­ED: As­traZeneca, Ox­ford on the de­fen­sive as skep­tics dis­miss 70% av­er­age ef­fi­ca­cy for Covid-19 vac­cine

On the third straight Monday that the world wakes up to positive vaccine news, AstraZeneca and Oxford are declaring a new Phase III milestone in the fight against the pandemic. Not everyone is convinced they will play a big part, though.

With an average efficacy of 70%, the headline number struck analysts as less impressive than the 95% and 94.5% protection that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have boasted in the past two weeks, respectively. But the British partners say they have several other bright spots going for their candidate. One of the two dosing regimens tested in Phase III showed a better profile, bringing efficacy up to 90%; the adenovirus vector-based vaccine requires minimal refrigeration, which may mean easier distribution; and AstraZeneca has pledged to sell it at a fraction of the price that the other two vaccine developers are charging.

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Gen­mab ax­es an ADC de­vel­op­ment pro­gram af­ter the da­ta fail to im­press

Genmab $GMAB has opted to ax one of its antibody-drug conjugates after watching it flop in the clinic.

The Danish biotech reported Tuesday that it decided to kill their program for enapotamab vedotin after the data gathered from expansion cohorts failed to measure up. According to the company:

While enapotamab vedotin has shown some evidence of clinical activity, this was not optimized by different dose schedules and/or predictive biomarkers. Accordingly, the data from the expansion cohorts did not meet Genmab’s stringent criteria for proof-of-concept.

Vas Narasimhan, Novartis CEO (Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Vas Narasimhan's 'Wild Card' drugs: No­var­tis CEO high­lights po­ten­tial jack­pots, as well as late-stage stars, in R&D pre­sen­ta­tion

Novartis is always one of the industry’s biggest R&D spenders. As they often do toward the end of each year, company execs are highlighting the drugs they expect will most likely be winners in 2021.

And they’re also dreaming about some potential big-time lottery tickets.

As part of its annual investor presentation Tuesday, where the company allows investors and analysts to virtually schmooze with the bigwigs, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan will outline what he thinks are the pharma’s “Wild Cards.” The slate of five experimental drugs are those that Novartis hopes can be high-risk, high-reward entrants into the market over the next half-decade or so, and cover a wide range of indications.

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Bahija Jallal (file photo)

TCR pi­o­neer Im­muno­core scores a first with a land­mark PhI­II snap­shot on over­all sur­vival for a rare melanoma

Bahija Jallal’s crew at TCR pioneer Immunocore says they have nailed down a promising set of pivotal data for their lead drug in a frontline setting for a solid tumor. And they are framing this early interim readout as the convincing snapshot they need to prove that their platform can deliver on a string of breakthrough therapies now in the clinic or planned for it.

In advance of the Monday announcement, Jallal and R&D chief David Berman took some time to walk me through the first round of Phase III data for their lead TCR designed to treat rare, frontline cases of metastatic uveal melanoma that come with a grim set of survival expectations.

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The ad­u­canum­ab co­nun­drum: The PhI­II failed a clear reg­u­la­to­ry stan­dard, but no one is cer­tain what that means any­more at the FDA

Eighteen days ago, virtually all of the outside experts on an FDA adcomm got together to mug the agency’s Billy Dunn and the Biogen team when they presented their upbeat assessment on aducanumab. But here we are, more than 2 weeks later, and the ongoing debate over that Alzheimer’s drug’s fate continues unabated.

Instead of simply ruling out any chance of an approval, the logical conclusion based on what we heard during that session, a series of questionable approvals that preceded the controversy over the agency’s recent EUA decisions has come back to haunt the FDA, where the power of precedent is leaving an opening some experts believe can still be exploited by the big biotech.

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Pur­due Phar­ma pleads guilty in fed­er­al Oxy­Con­tin probe, for­mal­ly rec­og­niz­ing it played a part in the opi­oid cri­sis

Purdue Pharma, the producer of the prescription painkiller OxyContin, admitted Tuesday that, yes, it did contribute to America’s opioid epidemic.

The drugmaker formally pleaded guilty to three criminal charges, the AP reported, including getting in the way of the DEA’s efforts to combat the crisis, failing to prevent the painkillers from ending up on the black market and encouraging doctors to write more painkiller prescriptions through two methods: paying them in a speakers program and directing a medical records company to send them certain patient information. Purdue’s plea deal calls for $8.3 billion in criminal fines and penalties, but the company is only liable for a fraction of that total — $225 million.

News brief­ing: Gilead part­ner Gala­pa­gos sells off CRO for $37M; Polyphor bags $3.3M from CF Foun­da­tion

Close Gilead ally Galapagos is selling off one of its contract research organizations to a Polish pharma company.

Galapagos has agreed to sell 100% of the outstanding shares in the CRO Fidelta to Selvita, in a deal worth roughly $37 million expected to close in the first week of January. The acquisition is expected to nearly double Selvita’s revenues, the company says, as well as expand its drug discovery efforts.