Six years ago, when Steve Doberstein took over as chief scientific officer at Nektar Therapeutics, he set up a new biologics research group with an eye to expanding on the biotech’s base of small molecules. The very first project they would undertake went on to become NKTR-214, a preclinical biologic that the company believes can play a role in immuno-oncology.
Today, Nektar is pulling the wraps off a deal to collaborate with Bristol-Myers Squibbs’ I/O allstars in R&D to see how their experimental drug matches up with Opdivo, one of the leaders in the first wave of checkpoint inhibition.
“The combination of the two medications makes a tremendous amount of sense to me,” says Doberstein. The same goes for Bristol-Myers.
It’s easy to see why Bristol-Myers would be interested enough to foot half the costs of the upcoming work. Nektar has been running animal studies that demonstrated their drug’s ability to spur immune T cells to divide and activate, amping up an immune response. Checkpoints dismantle a cancer cell’s defense system, leaving them vulnerable to an attack. The synergies are obvious. With the right checkpoint, which Bristol-Myers feels it has, Nektar’s work has the potential to “make cold tumors hot,” in Doberstein’s words.
The work at Nektar centers around a growing understand of the role of the IL-2 pathway, says Doberstein. If you hit the wrong IL-2 receptor, says the CSO, you’ll wind up triggering regulatory T cells, which suppress the immune system. Hit the CD122 receptors, though, and you’ll amp up a T cell attack.
The plan now is to wrap up an ongoing safety study, with some 30 subjects, and then branch out into 5 different tumor types and 7 different indications, with a variety of small expansion studies in each in the second half of 2017 to see if they can have an impact. Doberstein sees potential in all of them, though he doubts that they’ll hit on the full slate.
This is not your average collaboration story. There are no big biobucks involved. Everybody is hanging on to their rights. No one is planning to conquer blockbuster markets quite yet. But it is the kind of 50/50 venture that Nektar likes for its first foray into the clinic. And it puts them at the same table as some of the best in the checkpoint business.
A joint steering committee is directing the work, with plenty of input from BMS and Nektar in how things are done. After the first round, they can talk again about any pivotal plans.
Immuno-oncology projects have been exploding around the globe in recent months, and there’s some potential here to do something unique.
It’s a great place to start.
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John Carroll, Editor and Co-Founder
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