#AACR: Mer­ck spot­lights piv­otal Keytru­da/chemo da­ta, hop­ing to break down skep­ti­cism to its front­line lung can­cer duo

CHICA­GO — Mer­ck wowed the im­muno-on­col­o­gy mar­ket ear­ly this year with the head­line news that its piv­otal KEYNOTE-189 study demon­strat­ed a clear suc­cess for Keytru­da com­bined with chemo in treat­ing front­line lung can­cer cas­es. And at AACR in Chica­go to­day, its in­ves­ti­ga­tors spelled out the promis­ing re­sults — demon­strat­ing that the com­bo re­duced the risk of death by half with a haz­ard ra­tio of 0.49 — as Mer­ck looks to hold back a wave of ma­jor league com­peti­tors as it carves out a big­ger share of the block­buster lung can­cer mar­ket.

In the first look at hard da­ta for non­squa­mous non-small cell lung can­cer — which will be care­ful­ly com­pared with the da­ta from Bris­tol-My­ers — re­searchers say that their com­bo clear­ly beat out chemo alone on over­all sur­vival, though the fi­nal OS rate for the com­bi­na­tion has not yet been reached. 

Leena Gand­hi

The great­est ben­e­fit among these pa­tients was among the high PD-L1 ex­pressers, but chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor Leena Gand­hi at the Perl­mut­ter Can­cer Cen­ter at NYU Lan­gone Health al­so says that the sur­vival ben­e­fit could be seen across the board on PD-L1 ex­pres­sion.

Mer­ck’s piv­otal da­ta from the -189 study are cru­cial to their cam­paign to be the leader in check­point in­hi­bi­tion. Ap­proved by the FDA for front­line cas­es on Phase II da­ta — but re­ject­ed in Eu­rope — Mer­ck says that physi­cians have been slow to change the way they treat lung can­cer. Now Mer­ck be­lieves this da­ta should re­solve any doubts as Keytru­da be­comes the stan­dard of care in this crit­i­cal­ly im­por­tant set­ting.

At 12 months, Gand­hi tells me, 69.2% of the com­bo arm was still alive, com­pared to 49.4% in the con­trol arm. 

Ac­cord­ing to Mer­ck, pa­tients in the drug arm were 51% less like­ly to die than the con­trol group, and those in the high­est PD-L1 score group were 58% less like­ly to die. The rates held up de­spite a high num­ber of pa­tients who crossed over to the com­bo af­ter their dis­ease pro­gressed.

“The great­est ben­e­fit was seen in those with high lev­els of PD-L1 ex­pres­sion, sug­gest­ing that PD-L1 does have some pre­dic­tive val­ue even in this com­bi­na­tion set­ting,” Gand­hi said. 

Me­di­an PFS was 8.8 months for the pem­brolizum­ab arm, ver­sus 4.9 months for the con­trol group.

Some an­a­lysts have been wait­ing to see if the ben­e­fits for the com­bo leaned pri­mar­i­ly to high PD-L1 ex­pressers, leav­ing ri­vals an open­ing in divvy­ing up the mar­ket on the rest. But Gand­hi says the sur­vival ad­van­tages are clear re­gard­less of PD-L1 sta­tus. That marks a trend that many are see­ing, where new ther­a­peu­tic ap­proach­es are de­liv­er­ing en­hanced re­sults for the high-PD-L1 group while re­tain­ing promis­ing re­sults for the full field.

“There was no group that didn’t get a sur­vival ben­e­fit in this study,” Gand­hi says, with the re­sults of­fer­ing a prac­tice-chang­ing set of re­sults. She al­so says she wants to ful­ly con­sid­er the fi­nal da­ta from Check­mate-227 (Bris­tol-My­ers) and IM­pow­er-150 (Roche) as she pon­ders the chang­ing scene for prac­ti­tion­ers.

Roivant par­lays a $450M chunk of eq­ui­ty in biotech buy­out, grab­bing a com­pu­ta­tion­al group to dri­ve dis­cov­ery work

New Roivant CEO Matt Gline has crafted an all-equity upfront deal to buy out a Boston-based biotech that has been toiling for several years now at building a supercomputing-based computational platform to design new drugs. And he’s adding it to the Erector set of science operations that are being built up to support their network of biotech subsidiaries with an eye to growing the pipeline in a play to create a new kind of pharma company.

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Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

Covid-19 roundup: Mer­ck­'s $356M sup­ply deal on hold as FDA asks for more da­ta; FDA ap­proves Pfiz­er/BioN­Tech vac­cine stor­age at stan­dard freez­er temps

Merck is pushing back plans to supply the US government with a Covid-19 drug after the FDA asked for more data to support an emergency use authorization.

The antibody, MK-7110, had looked promising in a Phase III study conducted by OncoImmune before Merck came along and bought the biotech for $425 million. At the interim analysis, investigators looked at data from 203 patients and concluded that a single dose of the drug cut the risk of death or respiratory failure by more than 50% among severe patients. And those taking the drug had a 60% higher chance of improvement in clinical status compared to placebo.

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CEO Fred Aslan (Artiva)

NK cell ther­a­py play­er Arti­va makes some more noise, pulling in $120M Se­ries B less than a month af­ter Mer­ck deal

Not even one month after Big Pharma took notice of Artiva when Merck signed a collaboration worth nearly $2 billion in milestones, the off-the-shelf NK cell biotech already has its next big fundraise.

Artiva returns from the venture well Friday with a $120 million Series B round, money they will use to get their first program into the clinic and to file INDs for another two candidates. The raise marks the latest development in a rapidly expanding footprint for Artiva, which, in addition to the Merck deal last month, has now raised almost $200 million since its Series A last June.

Fatty liver conceptual image, 3D illustration showing fatty liver silhouette made from micrograph of liver steatosis (Shutterstock)

The path to NASH: un­der­stand­ing the role of se­vere obe­si­ty in a com­plex, mul­ti-sys­tem dis­ease

Biotech Voices is a collection of exclusive opinion editorials from some of the leading voices in biopharma on the biggest industry questions today. Think you have a voice that should be heard? Reach out to senior editors Kyle Blankenship and Amber Tong.

We often think a person’s transition from a healthy to a diseased state is binary. But that’s often not the case. In reality, the onset of a disease is not something that occurs overnight, and the majority lie on a continuum that is impacted by a multitude of factors. Some of these factors are in a patient’s control. Others are not.

This is the case in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), two of the most complex diseases that “live” on this proverbial continuum. The clinical onset of NAFLD — and ultimately NASH — is a complex process that is closely related to obesity, insulin resistance and impaired adipose tissue metabolism.

Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck takes a swing at the IL-2 puz­zle­box with a $1.85B play for buzzy Pan­dion and its au­toim­mune hope­fuls

When Roger Perlmutter bid farewell to Merck late last year, the drugmaker perhaps best known now for sales giant Keytruda signaled its intent to take a swing at early-stage novelty with the appointment of discovery head Dean Li. Now, Merck is signing a decent-sized check to bring an IL-2 moonshot into the fold.

Merck will shell out roughly $1.85 billion for Pandion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech hoping to gin up regulatory T cells (Tregs) to treat a range of autoimmune disorders, the drugmaker said Thursday.

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Steve Cutler, Icon CEO (Icon)

In the biggest CRO takeover in years, Icon doles out $12B for PRA Health Sci­ences to fo­cus on de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal work

Contract research M&A had a healthy run in recent years before recently petering out. But with the market ripe for a big buyout and the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizing the importance of decentralized trials, Wednesday saw a tectonic shift in the CRO world.

Icon, the Dublin-based CRO, will acquire PRA Health Sciences for $12 billion in a move that will shake up the highest rungs of a fragmented market. The merger would combine the 5th- and 6th-largest CROs by 2020 revenue, according to Icon, and the merger will set the newco up to be the second-largest global CRO behind only IQVIA.

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Tal Zaks, Moderna CMO (AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi, via still image from video)

CMO Tal Zaks bids Mod­er­na a sur­prise adieu as biotech projects $18.4B in rev­enue, plots post-Covid ex­pan­sion

How do you exit a company after six years in style? Developing one of the most lucrative and life-saving products in pharma history is probably not the worst way to go.

Tal Zaks, Moderna’s CMO since 2015, will leave the mRNA biotech in September, the biotech disclosed in their annual report this morning. The company has already retained the recruitment firm Russell Reynolds to find a replacement.

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