Brad Lon­car­'s AS­CO19 pre­view: 5 big ideas to watch for at the ul­ti­mate can­cer show of the year

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Friday marks the beginning of yet another ASCO Annual Meeting. For those of us who follow cancer research closely, this will always be one of the most special times of the year. It is a moment to take stock of the industry’s progress but also consider the challenges ahead. Genomics, advances in antibody engineering, immunotherapy, cell therapy, and other tools are changing how researchers and clinicians think about cancer. The industry’s momentum is unmistakable. At the same time, there will never be a shortage of unmet needs and too many patients are without good treatment options today.

One thing I have noticed a lot when talking with people ahead of this year’s meeting is that many are calling 2019 a down year. It feels like there are not as many weighty presentations as in the past and that the “wow factor” is just plain missing. While there might be some truth to that (ASCO stalwarts Merck and Bristol are not even holding analyst events this year), consider that this might also be a sign that the way companies are presenting data throughout the year is evolving. Perhaps ASCO’s role is as well.

Put simply, there are more medical meetings throughout the year than ever before. They are well attended by the research community and covered so widely by the media that there is less of a reason to hold data for this one big event. We are also living in a real-time era. A good illustration of the changing times is last year’s 1L lung cancer presentations at AACR. Those were probably the most important data releases in oncology in years, yet they were presented at a conference that is known for focusing on preclinical and early stage research. What mattered most to the companies was not the venue but getting the data out in a timely manner.

That is not to say that ASCO’s role is diminished. It will always be the biggest, most esteemed, and frankly best conference of the year. It will also always be the premier venue for clinicians to gather and discuss new trends and best practices with others in the industry. But I do think how data is presented there and the way some of us use ASCO is truly changing, and that’s ok. To me, it is the ultimate big ideas conference. I try to take a macro view and use it as a barometer of how oncology is progressing over the long term and how new treatments might fit in. If you view it that way, I think 2019 is most definitely not a down year.

Below is what I think are five “big ideas” at this year’s conference to look for. I’ll also include some notes afterwards on smaller items that have intrigued me as well. Note: these are things I’m personally interested in and it is definitely not an exhaustive list for the entire conference.

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How one start­up fore­told the neu­ro­science re­nais­sance af­ter '50 years of shit­show'

In the past couple of years, something curious has happened: Pharma and VC dollars started gushing into neuroscience research.

Biogen’s controversial new Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm has been approved on the basis of removing amyloid plaque from the brain, but the new neuro-focused pharma and biotechs have much loftier aims. Significantly curbing or even curing the most notorious disorders would prove the Holy Grail for a complex system that has tied the world’s best drug developers in knots for decades.

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Bob Bradway, Amgen CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Am­gen bel­lies back up to the M&A ta­ble for an­oth­er biotech buy­out, this time with a $2.5B deal for an an­ti­body play­er fo­cused on PS­MA

Five months after Amgen CEO Bob Bradway stepped up to the M&A table and acquired Five Prime for $1.9 billion, following up with the smaller Rodeo acquisition, he’s gone back in for another biotech buyout.

This time around, Amgen is paying $900 million cash while committing up to $1.6 billion in milestones to bag the privately held Teneobio, an antibody drug developer that has expertise in developing new bispecifics and multispecifics. In addition, Amgen cited Teneobio’s “T-cell engager platform, which expands on Amgen’s existing leadership position in bispecific T-cell engagers by providing a differentiated, but complementary, approach to Amgen’s current BiTE platform.”

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Ryan Watts, Denali CEO

De­nali slips as a snap­shot of ear­ly da­ta rais­es some trou­bling ques­tions on its pi­o­neer­ing blood-brain bar­ri­er neu­ro work

Denali Therapeutics had drummed up considerable hype for their blood-brain barrier technology since launching over six years ago, hype that’s only intensified in the last 14 months following the publications of a pair of papers last spring and proof of concept data earlier this year. On Sunday, the South San Francisco-based biotech gave the biopharma world the next look at in-human data for its lead candidate in Hunter syndrome.

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Art Levinson (Calico)

Google-backed Cal­i­co dou­bles down on an­ti-ag­ing R&D pact with Ab­b­Vie as part­ners ante up $1B, start to de­tail drug tar­gets

Seven years after striking up a major R&D alliance, AbbVie and Google-backed anti-aging specialist Calico are doubling down on their work with a joint, $1 billion commitment to continuing their work together. And they’re also beginning to offer some details on where this project is taking them in the clinic.

According to their statement, each of the two players is putting up $500 million more to keep the labs humming.

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Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO (Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP Images)

BioN­Tech is spear­head­ing an mR­NA vac­cine de­vel­op­ment pro­gram for malar­ia, with a tech trans­fer planned for Africa

Flush with the success of its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, BioNTech is now gearing up for one of the biggest challenges in vaccine development — which comes without potential profit.

The German mRNA pioneer says it plans to work on a jab for malaria, then transfer the tech to the African continent, where it will work with partners on developing the manufacturing ops needed to make this and other vaccines.

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Why is On­col­o­gy Drug De­vel­op­ment Re­search Late to the Dig­i­tal Bio­mark­ers Game?

During the recent Annual ASCO Meeting, thousands of cancer researchers and clinicians from across the globe joined together virtually to present and discuss the latest findings and breakthroughs in cancer research and care. There were more than 5000+ scientific abstracts presented during this event, yet only a handful involved the use of motion-tracking wearables to collect digital measures relating to activity, sleep, mobility, functional status, and/or quality of life. Although these results were a bit disappointing, they should come as no surprise to those of us in the wearable technology field.

UP­DAT­ED: Pan­el of neu­ro­science ex­perts lays out the com­pli­ca­tions with us­ing Bio­gen's new Alzheimer's drug

Treatment of early Alzheimer’s patients with Biogen’s new drug Aduhelm should closely resemble how the drug was studied in its pivotal clinical trials, according to new recommendations from a panel of neuroscience experts led by UNLV’s Jeffrey Cummings.

“Those considering aducanumab therapy should understand that the expected benefit is slowing of cognitive and functional decline; improvement of the current clinical state is not anticipated,” they wrote Tuesday in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, noting that some of their recommendations are more specific or more restrictive than the information provided in the FDA’s prescribing information.

Christophe Weber, Takeda CEO (Kyodo via AP Images)

Take­da flesh­es out CNS pact with pep­tide drug­mak­er, set­ting aside $3.5B in fu­ture mile­stones

One of a suite of drugmakers looking to reinvest in the neuroscience space, Takeda has been aggressive in signing on new partners to help build up its pipeline in that space. But sometimes the best partner is the one you already have.

Takeda will set aside $3.5 billion in future milestones and an undisclosed upfront payment to build out its drug discovery deal with Japanese peptide conjugate maker PeptiDream, adding neurodegeneration to the partnership’s list of CNS targets, the companies said Tuesday.

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George Yancopoulos, Regeneron

Re­gen­eron's lat­est ge­net­ics dis­cov­ery hooks As­traZeneca — now all-in on de­vel­op­ing small mol­e­cules for obe­si­ty

Just weeks after its widely lauded genetics research arm tagged a promising new target for obesity, Regeneron has signed up an industry heavyweight to collaborate with on developing new drugs that can potentially act as a game-changer in what has proven to be a tough field for developers.

The Regeneron Genetics Center published a paper in Science at the beginning of this month highlighting how their work sequencing the genomes of 650,000 people highlighted how people with at least 1 inactive copy of the GPR75 gene weighed on average 12 pounds less than the rest of the population with a 54% reduction in risk of obesity.

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