Deaths de­rail Juno's launch count­down, giv­ing Kite and No­var­tis the lead

The FDA’s hold on Juno Ther­a­peu­tics’ lead CAR-T pro­gram, JCAR015, last­ed on­ly six days. But the de­rail­ment was se­ri­ous enough to push its ex­pect­ed ap­proval date from 2017 back in­to 2018, leav­ing Kite Phar­ma and No­var­tis an­gling for the first ap­provals in the field in 2017.

Juno CEO Hans Bish­op

“Re­gard­ing the ROCK­ET tri­al,” Juno CEO Hans Bish­op told an­a­lysts Thurs­day evening, “the process of get­ting IRB ap­proval across mul­ti­ple sites along with the gat­ed en­roll­ment for the next six pa­tients leaves us to now es­ti­mat­ing ap­proval as ear­ly as the first half of 2018.”

The new H1 2018 pro­jec­tion marks a set­back for Juno, which had been seen as run­ning neck and neck with Kite in the race to get the land­mark ap­proval for a new can­cer ther­a­py that takes cells from pa­tients and reengi­neers them in­to a can­cer cell at­tack ve­hi­cle.

The hold last month, fol­low­ing the death of sev­er­al pa­tients from lethal cas­es of cere­bral ede­ma, stunned long­time ob­servers of Juno. The biotech quick­ly and suc­cess­ful­ly ap­pealed to the agency to lift the hold, say­ing they be­lieved that adding flu­dara­bine to its pre­con­di­tion­ing reg­i­men for pa­tients — prep­ping them to bet­ter re­spond to their CAR-T — had cre­at­ed a tox­ic com­bi­na­tion with the ther­a­py, killing 4 pa­tients. Reg­u­la­tors, who had al­so placed the same ther­a­py briefly on hold af­ter cy­tokine re­lease syn­drome al­so killed some pa­tients ear­ly on, were quick to re­spond af­fir­ma­tive­ly.

The de­lay leaves JCAR015 poised to en­ter the mar­ket just a year ahead of JCAR017. Bish­op de­scribes the sec­ond drug as “the back­bone of our CD19 fran­chise,” which is aimed at NHL, pe­di­atric and adult ALL and CLL.

Juno, though, is al­so mov­ing a va­ri­ety of pro­grams across a broad R&D front, and is now go­ing af­ter mul­ti­ple myelo­ma in a new pact that ropes in long­time col­lab­o­ra­tors at Memo­r­i­al Sloan Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter.

In a sep­a­rate press re­lease, the Seat­tle-based biotech an­nounced Thurs­day evening that it had struck a deal with MSK and Eu­re­ka Ther­a­peu­tics for IP on bind­ing do­mains need­ed to com­mer­cial­ize a CAR-T for mul­ti­ple myelo­ma. These bind­ing do­mains were de­vel­oped in a pact that Eu­re­ka and MSK had struck ear­li­er.

That deal is par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant, as it in­volves a ful­ly-hu­man bind­ing do­main tar­get­ing B-cell mat­u­ra­tion anti­gen (BC­MA), along with bind­ing do­mains against two ad­di­tion­al undis­closed mul­ti­ple myelo­ma tar­gets. The BC­MA pact puts Juno on a po­ten­tial col­li­sion course with blue­bird bio, which al­so chose that tar­get in a col­lab­o­ra­tion its pur­su­ing with Cel­gene. Those two play­ers re­struc­tured their deal last year to con­cen­trate on BC­MA and Cel­gene lat­er signed a ma­jor pact with Juno as well.

Pfiz­er and Cel­lec­tis are al­so aim­ing at BC­MA in their col­lab­o­ra­tion, but they’re con­cen­trat­ing on a sec­ond-gen, off-the-shelf prod­uct.

Juno CSO Hy Lev­it­sky

“We ex­pect the BC­MA CAR to en­ter hu­man test­ing as ear­ly as the first half 2017,” Juno CSO Hy Lev­it­sky told an­a­lysts. “We’re op­ti­mistic the CAR T cell ther­a­py can be an im­por­tant com­po­nent in treat­ing pa­tients with mul­ti­ple myelo­ma. And we are pleased to bring ad­di­tion­al ful­ly hu­man body do­main against BC­MA and oth­er tar­gets in­to our pro­gram. We be­lieve that a mul­ti-pronged ap­proach may be nec­es­sary to treat this dis­ease and hence the im­por­tance of ac­cess to sev­er­al hu­man con­structs spe­cif­ic for more than one tar­get.”

This isn’t the first such pact that Juno and Eu­re­ka have struck. Back at the be­gin­ning of the year the two com­pa­nies struck a deal on a ful­ly hu­man bind­ing do­main that tar­gets MUC16. These bind­ing do­mains play a key role in im­prov­ing cell per­sis­tence, amp­ing up their ef­fect on pa­tients. And the in­tense ri­val­ry to dom­i­nate the first wave of com­mer­cial CAR-Ts to hit the mar­ket has spurred an arms race for the best tech with the most po­ten­tial.

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

Bio­gen hit by ALS set­back with PhI­II fail­ure for tofersen — but fol­lows a fa­mil­iar strat­e­gy high­light­ing the pos­i­tive

Patients and analysts waiting to hear Sunday how Biogen’s SOD1-ALS drug tofersen fared in Phase III didn’t have to wait long for the top-line result they were all waiting for. The drug failed the primary endpoint on significantly improving the functional and neurologic decline of patients over 28 weeks as well as the extension period for continued observation.

In fact, there was very little difference in response.

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UP­DAT­ED: Boehringer nabs FDA's first in­ter­change­abil­i­ty des­ig­na­tion for its Hu­mi­ra com­peti­tor — but will it mat­ter?

The FDA late Friday awarded Boehringer Ingelheim the first interchangeability designation for its Humira biosimilar Cyltezo, meaning that when it launches in July 2023, pharmacists will be able to automatically substitute the Boehringer’s version for AbbVie’s mega-blockbuster without a doctor’s input.

The designation will likely give Boehringer, which first won approval for Cyltezo in 2017, the leg up on a crowded field of Humira competitors.

Reshma Kewalramani, Vertex CEO (YouTube)

Ver­tex gets much-need­ed win with ‘ex­tra­or­di­nary’ first pa­tient re­sults on po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure

Vertex said Monday that the first patient dosed with its cell therapy for type 1 diabetes saw their need for insulin injections vanish almost entirely, a key early step in the decades-long effort to develop a curative treatment for the chronic disease.

The patient, who had suffered five potentially life-threatening hypoglycemic — or low blood sugar — episodes in the year before the therapy, was injected with synthetic insulin-producing cells. After 90 days, the patient’s new cells produced insulin steadily and ramped up their insulin production after a meal like normal cells do, as measured by a standard biomarker for insulin production.

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No­var­tis de­vel­op­ment chief John Tsai: 'We go deep in the new plat­form­s'

During our recent European Biopharma Summit, I talked with Novartis development chief John Tsai about his experiences over the 3-plus years he’s been at the pharma giant. You can read the transcript below or listen to the exchange in the link above.

John Carroll: I followed your career for quite some time. You’ve had more than 20 years in big pharma R&D and you’ve obviously seen quite a lot. I really was curious about what it was like for you three and a half years ago when you took over as R&D chief at Novartis. Obviously a big move, a lot of changes. You went to work for the former R&D chief of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, who had his own track record there. So what was the biggest adjustment when you went into this position?

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Susan Galbraith, Executive VP, Oncology R&D, AstraZeneca

As­traZeneca on­col­o­gy R&D chief Su­san Gal­braith: 'Y­ou're go­ing to need or­thog­o­nal com­bi­na­tion­s'

 

Earlier in the week we broadcast our 4th annual European Biopharma Summit with a great lineup of top execs. One of the one-on-one conversations I set up was with Susan Galbraith, the oncology research chief at AstraZeneca. In a wide-ranging discussion, Galbraith reviewed the cancer drug pipeline and key trends influencing development work at the pharma giant. You can watch the video, above, or stick with the script below. — JC

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Two drug­mak­ers hit with PDU­FA date de­lays from FDA amid back­log of in­spec­tions

As the FDA is weighed down with more and more pandemic responsibilities, the agency is beginning to miss PDUFA dates with more frequency too. Two different companies on Monday said they received notices that the FDA has not completed their drug reviews on time.

The review of an NDA for Avadel Pharmaceuticals’ candidate treatment for narcolepsy is not coming this month, the company said, and the review of UCB’s BLA for bimekizumab, used to treat moderate to severe plaque psoriasis, will miss its target date as well.

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Terrie Curran, Phathom CEO (Credit: Arcutis)

Phath­om's old Take­da drug bests Pre­vacid in a PhI­II GI tri­al. Next stop? The FDA

There’s no time for rest in biopharma — at least not at Phathom Pharmaceuticals. Just over a month after submitting two NDAs for its lead acid-fighter vonoprazan, the biotech is already lining up a third, and collecting an extra $50 million to push things along.

Vonoprazan met its primary non-inferiority endpoints in a Phase III study comparing it to standard-of-care Prevacid in a type of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) called erosive esophagitis (EE). It also proved superior to the popular heartburn drug by multiple measures, including healing rate and maintenance of healing.

Thomas Lingelbach, Valneva CEO

Small biotech says its Covid-19 vac­cine spurs more an­ti­bod­ies than As­traZeneca’s. Will sup­ply deals come now?

In a first, a small runner-up vaccine developer says its own Covid-19 jab has induced “superior neutralizing antibody titer levels” over AstraZeneca’s AZD1222 when pitted head-to-head in a Phase III trial.

That and non-inferiority in seroconversion rate were the co-primary endpoints of the trial, which recruited 4,012 adult volunteers across the UK.

But on the exploratory endpoint of Covid-19 case counts, Valneva notes that both treatment groups saw a similar number of infections.