As­traZeneca’s PhI­II bid on asth­ma drug tralok­inum­ab flops, and that’s no sur­prise

Maybe the best way to look at As­traZeneca R&D now is by di­vid­ing the re­search group in­to two big buck­ets: can­cer and every­thing else. That “every­thing else” group was just hit with a wide­ly ex­pect­ed Phase III fail­ure that the drug gi­ant can ill af­ford as it strug­gles to make a con­vinc­ing case for a des­per­ate­ly need­ed turn­around.

Sean Bo­hen, As­traZeneca

This time the late-stage fail­ure be­longs, once again, to its IL-13 asth­ma drug tralok­inum­ab. In its first of two Phase III stud­ies, the drug failed to sig­nif­i­cant­ly re­duce an­nu­al ex­ac­er­ba­tion rates. There is a sec­ond Phase III un­der­way that As­traZeneca be­lieves could hold the key to ul­ti­mate suc­cess, say­ing that they will com­bine da­ta from the two in de­ter­min­ing its fu­ture.

In ad­di­tion, re­searchers point­ed to a sub-pop­u­la­tion analy­sis in which pa­tients with an el­e­vat­ed mark­er for IL-13 re­spond­ed bet­ter to the drug and they plan to make that a spe­cial fo­cus of the sec­ond tri­al.

How­ev­er.

This drug al­ready failed a Phase IIb tri­al for asth­ma, rais­ing ques­tions about why the com­pa­ny would go ahead and con­tin­ue a ma­jor late-stage ef­fort need­ed to get an OK in asth­ma. But the re­searchers at the time said they were en­cour­aged by a sub­group analy­sis that point­ed to suc­cess. The com­pa­ny qui­et­ly dumped the id­io­path­ic pul­monary fi­bro­sis pro­gram, but in­sist­ed that there was every rea­son to be­lieve that tralok­inum­ab would work in asth­ma. On top of that, Roche’s drug le­brik­izum­ab, al­so an IL-13, came up with a split de­ci­sion in its two Phase III stud­ies last year that amount­ed to a se­vere set­back on that front.

As­traZeneca post­ed some mixed — though gen­er­al­ly pos­i­tive — da­ta from two big Phase III stud­ies of ben­ral­izum­ab, its IL-5 con­tender in the high­ly com­pet­i­tive mar­ket for se­vere asth­ma, last fall. A high place­bo re­sponse se­ri­ous­ly erod­ed one set of late-stage da­ta.

The phar­ma gi­ant sold off the der­ma­tol­ogy rights for tralok­inum­ab to Leo Phar­ma, which says it gath­ered pos­i­tive IPF da­ta on the drug re­cent­ly. As­traZeneca al­so punt­ed rights to bro­dalum­ab af­ter that drug proved dis­ap­point­ing, though ap­prov­able, in Phase III with ev­i­dence that it trig­gered sui­ci­dal think­ing.

As­traZeneca’s stock was large­ly un­af­fect­ed by the Phase III fail­ure to­day, which couldn’t have sur­prised many an­a­lysts. The big play at As­traZeneca now is fo­cused on MYS­TIC, its com­bi­na­tion study of dur­val­um­ab and treme­li­mum­ab in lung can­cer. As­traZeneca has had some big suc­cess­es in can­cer over the last cou­ple of years, win­ning a first OK for dur­val­um­ab and pro­gress­ing with oth­er drugs like Tagris­so and Lyn­parza. But out­side can­cer the com­pa­ny has had a se­ries of grim flops that con­tin­ue to raise ques­tions about CEO Pas­cal So­ri­ot’s promise of a turn­around.

Re­search chief Sean Bo­hen had this to say in the com­pa­ny’s de­fense to­day:

Se­vere asth­ma is a het­ero­ge­neous dis­ease with sig­nif­i­cant un­met needs and we will now await the STRATOS 2 re­sults in the sec­ond half of 2017 to ex­plore the po­ten­tial to treat a sub-group of un­con­trolled asth­ma pa­tients with tralok­inum­ab.

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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Fangliang Zhang, AP Images

UP­DAT­ED: Leg­end fetch­es $424 mil­lion, emerges as biggest win­ner yet in pan­dem­ic IPO boom as shares soar

Amid a flurry of splashy pandemic IPOs, a J&J-partnered Chinese biotech has emerged with one of the largest public raises in biotech history.

Legend Biotech, the Nanjing-based CAR-T developer, has raised $424 million on NASDAQ. The biotech had originally filed for a still-hefty $350 million, based on a range of $18-$20, but managed to fetch $23 per share, allowing them to well-eclipse the massive raises from companies like Allogene, Juno, Galapagos, though they’ll still fall a few dollars short of Moderna’s record-setting $600 million raise from 2018.

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As it hap­pened: A bid­ding war for an an­tibi­ot­ic mak­er in a mar­ket that has rav­aged its peers

In a bewildering twist to the long-suffering market for antibiotics — there has actually been a bidding war for an antibiotic company: Tetraphase.

It all started back in March, when the maker of Xerava (an FDA approved therapy for complicated intra-abdominal infections) said it had received an offer from AcelRx for an all-stock deal valued at $14.4 million.

The offer was well-timed. Xerava was approved in 2018, four years after Tetraphase posted its first batch of pivotal trial data, and sales were nowhere near where they needed to be in order for the company to keep its head above water.

Bris­tol My­ers is clean­ing up the post-Cel­gene merg­er pipeline, and they’re sweep­ing out an ex­per­i­men­tal check­point in the process

Back during the lead up to the $74 billion buyout of Celgene, the big biotech’s leadership did a little housecleaning with a major pact it had forged with Jounce. Out went the $2.6 billion deal and a collaboration on ICOS and PD-1.

Celgene, though, also added a $530 million deal — $50 million up front — to get the worldwide rights to JTX-8064, a drug that targets the LILRB2 receptor on macrophages.

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Drug man­u­fac­tur­ing gi­ant Lon­za taps Roche/phar­ma ‘rein­ven­tion’ vet as its new CEO

Lonza chairman Albert Baehny took his time headhunting a new CEO for the company, making it absolutely clear he wanted a Big Pharma or biotech CEO with a good long track record in the business for the top spot. In the end, he went with the gold standard, turning to Roche’s ranks to recruit Pierre-Alain Ruffieux for the job.

Ruffieux, a member of the pharma leadership team at Roche, spent close to 5 years at the company. But like a small army of manufacturing execs, he gained much of his experience at the other Big Pharma in Basel, remaining at Novartis for 12 years before expanding his horizons.

Covid-19 roundup: Ab­b­Vie jumps in­to Covid-19 an­ti­body hunt; As­traZeneca shoots for 2B dos­es of Ox­ford vac­cine — with $750M from CEPI, Gavi

Another Big Pharma is entering the Covid-19 antibody hunt.

AbbVie has announced a collaboration with the Netherlands’ Utrecht University and Erasmus Medical Center and the Chinese-Dutch biotech Harbour Biomed to develop a neutralizing antibody that can treat Covid-19. The antibody, called 47D11, was discovered by AbbVie’s three partners, and AbbVie will support early preclinical work, while preparing for later preclinical and clinical development. Researchers described the antibody in Nature Communications last month.

Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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Leen Kawas, Athira CEO (Athira)

Can a small biotech suc­cess­ful­ly tack­le an Ever­est climb like Alzheimer’s? Athi­ra has $85M and some in­flu­en­tial back­ers ready to give it a shot

There haven’t been a lot of big venture rounds for biotech companies looking to run a Phase II study in Alzheimer’s.

The field has been a disaster over the past decade. Amyloid didn’t pan out as a target — going down in a litany of Phase III failures — and is now making its last stand at Biogen. Tau is a comer, but when you look around and all you see is destruction, the idea of backing a startup trying to find complex cocktails to swing the course of this devilishly complicated memory-wasting disease would daunt the pluckiest investors.

GSK presents case to ex­pand use of its lu­pus drug in pa­tients with kid­ney dis­ease, but the field is evolv­ing. How long will the mo­nop­oly last?

In 2011, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta became the first biologic to win approval for lupus patients. Nine years on, the British drugmaker has unveiled detailed positive results from a study testing the drug in lupus patients with associated kidney disease — a post-marketing requirement from the initial FDA approval.

Lupus is a drug developer’s nightmare. In the last six decades, there has been just one FDA approval (Benlysta), with the field resembling a graveyard in recent years with a string of failures including UCB and Biogen’s late-stage flop, as well as defeats in Xencor and Sanofi’s programs. One of the main reasons the success has eluded researchers is because lupus, akin to cancer, is not just one disease — it really is a disease of many diseases, noted Al Roy, executive director of Lupus Clinical Investigators Network, an initiative of New York-based Lupus Research Alliance that claims it is the world’s leading private funder of lupus research, in an interview.