#AACR18 round 1: Mer­ck takes a di­rect swing at Bris­tol-My­ers with ad­ju­vant melanoma da­ta for Keytru­da

CHICA­GO — Mer­ck $MRK came out of its cor­ner swing­ing Sun­day morn­ing, tak­ing a few di­rect jabs at the de­fend­ing cham­pi­on in check­point in­hi­bi­tion as the phar­ma gi­ant en­tered the lat­est I/O ti­tle fight with Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb $BMY at the an­nu­al meet­ing of AACR in Chica­go.

Roger Perl­mut­ter, Mer­ck

Re­searchers for Mer­ck were in Chica­go for the cur­tain open­er in what promis­es to be a bruis­ing brawl be­tween the lead­ers in the PD-1 field over a mar­ket one an­a­lyst has said is worth $3 bil­lion.

In KEYNOTE-054, Mer­ck de­ter­mined that 18 dos­es of Keytru­da pushed post-surgery pa­tients with stage 3 melanoma to a re­cur­rence-free rate of 75.4% com­pared to 61% for a com­par­i­son group get­ting a place­bo. A 43% drop in re­cur­rence rate was some­thing Mer­ck tout­ed as a ma­jor ad­vance for pa­tients.

Mer­ck is look­ing to carve away mar­ket share from Bris­tol-My­ers any way it can. And they’ll have their work cut out in Stage 3 melanoma. Bris­tol-My­ers won an ap­proval to use Yer­voy in this group three years ago, and fol­lowed up with an OK for Op­di­vo last year, mak­ing them the go-to play­er for ad­ju­vant ther­a­py.

Mer­ck, though, didn’t hes­i­tate to make its case in their out­line of the re­sults Sun­day morn­ing. Yer­voy, they note, is no­to­ri­ous­ly tox­ic for pa­tients, who may well pre­fer an al­ter­na­tive. And Op­di­vo? They have an ar­gu­ment there as well.

“Nivolum­ab was more ef­fec­tive and had few­er side ef­fects than ip­il­i­mum­ab, but it is giv­en at a dose of 3 mil­ligrams per kilo­gram every two weeks for up to a year, which is 26 dos­es in to­tal,” not­ed Alexan­der Eg­ger­ment, di­rec­tor gen­er­al of Gus­tave Roussy Can­cer Cam­pus Grand Paris, mak­ing Mer­ck’s case. “Pem­brolizum­ab may prove con­ve­nient to pa­tients and hos­pi­tals be­cause it re­quires few­er out­pa­tient hos­pi­tal vis­its and is giv­en at a flat dose.”

Mer­ck is hunt­ing ap­provals in the US and Eu­rope so they can take that pitch di­rect­ly to physi­cians.

A spokesper­son for Bris­tol-My­ers, though, fol­lowed up with me to note that “the ad­ju­vant melanoma dos­ing for nivolum­ab was up­dat­ed with the Q4W ap­proval and is now ap­proved for flat dos­ing 240 mg every two weeks or 480 mg every four weeks.”

Bris­tol-My­ers won an FDA ap­proval af­ter Check­mate-238 demon­strat­ed that Op­di­vo was bet­ter than Yer­voy in hold­ing back melanoma for post-surgery stage 3 and 4 pa­tients. In that study, the re­cur­rence rate for Op­di­vo at a me­di­an fol­low-up of 18.5 months was 66.4% for Op­di­vo and 52.7% for Yer­voy.

Whats at stake? Ac­cord­ing to Sea­mus Fer­nan­dez at Leerink, about $3 bil­lion. Here’s his com­ment on the -238 re­sults from last sum­mer:

We es­ti­mate the ad­ju­vant melanoma mar­ket will ex­pand PD1 sales by ap­prox­i­mate­ly $3B glob­al­ly. Al­though this like­ly will can­ni­bal­ize sales of Yer­voy in the set­ting (we es­ti­mate cur­rent ad­ju­vant Yer­voy sales at $300-400M), the ex­pan­sion of the mar­ket should add ap­prox­i­mate­ly $1B to BMY’s net im­muno-on­col­o­gy (IO) sales de­spite as­sumed com­pe­ti­tion from MRK’s (MP) Keytru­da (pem­brolizum­ab; an­ti-PD-1).

It’s not just about mon­ey, though. Ever since Bris­tol-My­ers rolled out in front of Mer­ck, Roger Perl­mut­ter’s team has been fo­cused on claim­ing the lead. A key mis­step on lung can­cer at Bris­tol-My­ers gave them an ad­van­tage they’ve been ex­ploit­ing ever since — which we’ll al­so hear more about over the next two days.

This par­tic­u­lar show­down has just be­gun.

Tal Zaks, Moderna CMO (Moderna via YouTube)

UP­DAT­ED: NI­AID and Mod­er­na spell out a 'ro­bust' im­mune re­sponse in PhI coro­n­avirus vac­cine test — but big ques­tions re­main to be an­swered

The NIAID and Moderna have spelled out positive Phase I safety and efficacy data for their Covid-19 vaccine mRNA-1273 — highlighting the first full, clear sketch of evidence that back-to-back jabs at the dose selected for Phase III routinely produced a swarm of antibodies to the virus that exceeded levels seen in convalescent patients — typically in multiples indicating a protective response.

Moderna execs say plainly that this first stage of research produced exactly the kind of efficacy they hoped to see in humans, with a manageable safety profile.

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Tillman Gerngross, Adagio Therapeutics CEO

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One of the most influential — and outspoken — scientists at work in the field of antibody discovery is jumping into the frenzied race to create new therapeutics to treat and prevent Covid-19. And he’s operating with the conviction that the current outbreak now once again spreading like wildfire will create plenty of demand for what he has in mind.

Dartmouth professor and Adimab CEO Tillman Gerngross tells me he’s raised $50 million from a group of close VCs to spin out a new company — Adagio Therapeutics — with a full C-suite team assembled to hire up a staff and keep rolling toward the clinic.

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Trans­port Sim­u­la­tion Test­ing for Your Ther­a­py is the Best Way to As­sure FDA Ex­pe­dit­ed Pro­gram Ap­proval

Modality Solutions is an ISO:9001-registered biopharmaceutical cold chain engineering firm with unique transport simulation capabilities that support accelerated regulatory approval for biologics and advanced therapeutic medicinal products (ATMP). Our expertise combines traditional validation engineering approaches with regulatory knowledge into a methodology tailored for the life sciences industry. We provide insight and execution for the challenges faced in your cold chain logistics network.

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Gilead­'s ex-R&D chief Bischof­berg­er heads back to the biotech gi­ant to pick up a pair of late-stage drugs that had been put aside

Norbert Bischofberger knows entospletinib well.

Back during his long, blockbuster run as head of R&D at Gilead, researchers had once held some high hopes for this drug. But to make it work, he and the team felt it would need a new companion diagnostic to identify patients. There was talk of a combo approach to give it more punch. But the market was small, making them wonder if it would be worth going through a lengthy development cycle to get it through a pivotal.

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The $1B Mer­ck-Bay­er drug that di­vid­ed car­di­ol­o­gists in March gets pri­or­i­ty re­view

Three months after Merck published in the New England Journal of Medicine data that left doctors and investors divided over just how well its experimental heart drug worked, the FDA has handed that drug priority review. A decision is now due by January 20, 2021.

Merck first announced the drug, known as vericiguat, as a Phase III success last November. In 2016, Merck had paid $1 billion upfront for US rights to the Bayer-developed drug. Early projections foresaw a few hundred million a year in sales, but the unspecified late-stage success raised the possibility for far more. After all, Novartis’s flagship heart drug, Entresto, was earning $1.7 billion per year and was expected to reach up to $4 billion in annual sales.

GSK’s Shin­grix leader Guil­laume Pfe­fer has jumped on board Flag­ship to helm a biotech hy­brid as Afeyan’s lat­est CEO-part­ner

After spending 4 years in a senior post with GlaxoSmithKline’s star team positioning Shingrix for a blockbuster approval, Guillaume Pfefer is headed back to the biotech world — in style.

Pfefer has signed on to join Noubar Afeyan’s busy group of partners at Flagship, and he’s taking the helm of an upstart — which today is being merged with another Flagship startup — with some grand plans of its own. The announcement this morning notes that Pfefer will run Kintai Therapeutics, one of the grads of the Flagship labs.

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Who are the women blaz­ing trails in bio­phar­ma R&D and lead­ing the fight against Covid-19? Nom­i­nate them for End­points' spe­cial re­port

One of the many inequalities the pandemic has laid bare is the gender imbalance in biomedical research. A paper examining Covid-19 research authorship wondered out loud: Where are the women?

It’s a question that echoes beyond our current times. In the biopharma world, not only are women under-represented in R&D roles (particularly at higher levels), their achievements and talents could also be undermined by stereotypes and norms of leadership styles. The problem is even more dire for women of color.

Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci (AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Fau­ci fires back at White House cam­paign to un­der­mine him

Anthony Fauci has called the White House campaign to discredit him “a bit bizarre” and said he stands by his previous statements, even if he has since changed his views.

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John Furey, Imvax CEO

A neu­ro­sur­geon spent the past 30 years de­vel­op­ing a neoanti­gen tu­mor vac­cine. Now he has $112M for a piv­otal test

As a neurosurgeon, David Andrews knew there wasn’t much he could do for his glioma patients after resecting — rarely fully — their tumor. Even with the best treatment and care available, median overall survival is just somewhere between 14 and 16 months.

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