Amid a record bad year, Bel­licum keeps tak­ing its lumps as FDA slams tri­al hold on CAR-T hope­ful

It’s been no less than a dis­as­trous year for Hous­ton biotech Bel­licum Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals af­ter tak­ing a scalpel to its pipeline and dump­ing a vast ma­jor­i­ty of its staff. Now, in an al­ready-doomed tri­al of one of Bel­licum’s next-gen on­col­o­gy hope­fuls, the FDA is dol­ing out even more lumps.

Bel­licum di­vulged on Mon­day that the FDA had placed a clin­i­cal hold on its Phase I/II tri­al for CAR-T can­di­date BPX-601 af­ter a pan­cre­at­ic can­cer pa­tient’s death in the ear­ly-stage test.

The death wasn’t re­lat­ed to treat­ment with BPX-601, Bel­licum said in a scant re­lease, or rim­iducid, a pro­tein-switch­ing ad­ju­vant that is be­lieved to spur bet­ter up­take in pa­tients’ T cells. The hold al­so wasn’t a broad in­dict­ment of the rest of Bel­licum’s clin­i­cal pipeline, and the com­pa­ny is mov­ing ahead with en­roll­ment on a sep­a­rate Phase I/II tri­al of BPX-603, an­oth­er CAR-T can­di­date hunt­ing HER2-pos­i­tive ex­press­ing tu­mors.

With the hold in place, Bel­licum plans to work “dili­gent­ly” with the FDA to clear BPX-601’s name, the com­pa­ny said in a re­lease, but the lat­est bad news is just an­oth­er ug­ly mark on the Hous­ton-based biotech’s record amid an ig­no­min­ious run.

Back in Oc­to­ber, Bel­licum un­veiled plans to slice away 54 team mem­bers — 79% of its staff — af­ter an ear­ly read­out from that same Phase I/II tri­al of BPX-601 came back less than im­pres­sive. The com­pa­ny was frank in its as­sess­ment of the tri­al at the time: “Clin­i­cal­ly mean­ing­ful ef­fi­ca­cy as mea­sured by RE­CIST cri­te­ria was not ob­served.”

Even with ef­fi­ca­cy out the win­dow, Bel­licum in­tend­ed to use the BPX-601 tri­al as a trail mark­er for the safe­ty of its Go­CAR-T plat­form, which hopes to in­duce high lev­els of T cell pro­lif­er­a­tion and cy­tokine pro­duc­tion to al­low for greater im­munomod­u­la­to­ry con­trol by the CAR-T it­self.

Rick Fair

The same month it slashed stuff num­bers, CEO Rick Fair said Bel­licum would hold out hope on the pre-ex­ist­ing safe­ty co­hort in the BPX-601 tri­al and start en­rolling a new metasta­t­ic cas­tra­tion-re­sis­tant prostate can­cer group in­to the study.

BPX-601 was one of three key pro­grams re­main­ing for Bel­licum af­ter the biotech ef­fec­tive­ly gut­ted its pipeline, putting its BC­MA Go­CAR-NK pro­gram on pause and par­ing back its ear­ly-stage R&D and prod­uct de­vel­op­ment teams.

The com­pa­ny is not on­ly pur­su­ing BPX-603, which hasn’t yet had its day in the clin­ic, but al­so stem-cell trans­plant ad­junct BPX-501, or ri­vo-cel, which has had its own strug­gles with the FDA. Back in 2018, the FDA put an ear­ly study of the ther­a­py on hold af­ter the tri­al’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors for­ward­ed ahead three cas­es of en­cephalopa­thy in the pa­tient pool.

Bel­licum even­tu­al­ly got that hold lift­ed in April 2018 af­ter amend­ing the study’s pro­to­cols to bet­ter scope neu­ro­log­i­cal is­sues in pa­tients, but it lat­er ad­mit­ted it was look­ing for out­side part­ners to take the lead pro­gram in­to lat­er-stage test­ing.

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.

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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Tom Barnes (Orna)

The mR­NA era is here. MPM be­lieves the fu­ture be­longs to oR­NA — and Big Phar­ma wants a seat at the ta­ble

If the ultra-fast clinical development of Covid-19 vaccines opened the world’s eyes to the promises of messenger RNA, the subsequent delays in supply offered a crash course on the ultra-complex process of producing them. Even before the formulation and fill-finish steps, mRNA is the precious end product from an arduous journey involving enzyme-aided transcription, modification and purification.

For Bristol Myers Squibb, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, Gilead’s Kite and Astellas, it’s time to rethink the way therapeutic RNA is engineered.

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FDA re­view­ers en­dorse J&J sin­gle-dose shot, lay­ing path for 3rd US vac­cine

J&J’s single-dose vaccine may not have produced quite the stellar numbers of the mRNA shots, but it still won a ringing endorsement from FDA reviewers, who argued in briefing documents that it could provide robust protection against the still-raging virus.

The FDA confirmed that across just under 40,000 volunteers, the vaccine proved 66% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19, including 72% effective in the United States. Although that’s short of the 95% figures put up by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, the shot was still 85% effective at stopping severe disease 28 days after administration. There were seven deaths in the placebo group — zero in the vaccine group.

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S&P ex­pects steady ero­sion in Big Phar­ma's cred­it pro­file in 2021 as new M&A deals roll in — but don't un­der­es­ti­mate their un­der­ly­ing strength

S&P Global has taken a look at the dominant forces shaping the pharma market and come to the conclusion that there will be more downgrades than upgrades in 2021 — the 8th straight year of steady decline.

But it’s not all bad news. Some things are looking up, and there’s still plenty of money to be made in an industry that enjoys a 30% to 40% profit margin, once you factor in steep R&D expenses.

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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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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Biden is look­ing be­yond Wood­cock or Sharf­stein for FDA com­mis­sion­er — re­port

Neither Janet Woodcock nor Joshua Sharfstein is likely to be nominated as the permanent FDA commissioner, Steve Usdin at BioCentury reports.

The White House is looking for alternatives to Woodcock, the acting chief and longtime CDER director, after opposition from several Democratic senators who are calling on others to block her nomination if her name is put forth, according to Usdin. Sharfstein, the former principal deputy FDA commissioner and current Johns Hopkins professor, is out of the running altogether.