Cel­gene signs Jounce as its new biotech star in $2.6B ‘im­muno-on­col­o­gy 2.0’ pact

Over the past year Cel­gene has com­mit­ted $1.25 bil­lion in cash – plus bil­lions more in mile­stones – to a pair of ma­jor im­muno-on­col­o­gy deals with Juno and Agios. To­day, Cel­gene has cho­sen its new star part­ner for can­cer R&D, step­ping up with a rich­ly front-end­ed $2.56 bil­lion deal to col­lab­o­rate with up­start Jounce Ther­a­peu­tics’ on its lead I/O pro­gram, plus a pack­age of treat­ments in dis­cov­ery.

It’s a clas­sic Cel­gene deal, swing­ing for the fences for a po­ten­tial block­buster or two while ag­gres­sive­ly woo­ing up-and-com­ing de­vel­op­ers with an open check­book and an open mind about leav­ing lead re­search ef­forts on the drugs to their new dance part­ner. More such deals are on the way, as top ex­ecs at Cel­gene pave the way to new pacts de­signed to take them well past the first wave of check­point in­hibitors, as well as the T cell treat­ments now in late-stage de­vel­op­ment, to com­mand a lead­ing role for it­self in the field.

Cel­gene is pay­ing $225 mil­lion in the up­front, adding $36 mil­lion in eq­ui­ty and com­mit­ting up to $2.3 bil­lion in mile­stones to com­plete the deal. In turn the big biotech gets dibs on a 40% share of U.S. prof­its for Jounce’s lead drug, the pre­clin­i­cal JTX-2011, plus a 75% share for its un­named suc­ces­sor and a split on three more pro­grams. There’s al­so an opt-in avail­able on an ex­per­i­men­tal check­point pro­gram tak­ing shape at Jounce.

Once Cel­gene choos­es to opt in, the two com­pa­nies will divvy up ex­pens­es the same way they plan to share prof­its. And Cel­gene gets all ex-U.S. rev­enue with a roy­al­ty stream for Jounce.

Rob Her­sh­berg, CSO of Cel­gene

“We love deals like this,” Cel­gene CSO Rob Her­sh­berg tells me. “ICOS is the most ad­vanced in the (Jounce) pipeline, dri­ving the eco­nom­ics, but it is way be­yond a T-cell deal. Agios is a per­fect ex­am­ple, push­ing the en­ve­lope be­yond the con­ven­tion­al check­point sto­ry.”

Her­sh­berg sees Agios as the best in can­cer meta­bol­ics. And now he’s been deeply im­pressed by the team at Jounce – im­muno-on­col­o­gy rock star Jim Al­li­son is a sci­en­tif­ic co-founder – and its abil­i­ties to iden­ti­fy bio­mark­ers while clear­ly defin­ing pa­tient sub­groups most like­ly to ben­e­fit.

“The qual­i­ty of the sci­ence and the peo­ple is re­al­ly good,” says the CSO.

Cel­gene has a col­lab­o­ra­tion in place with As­traZeneca’s PD-L1 dur­val­um­ab, adds Her­sh­berg. But when the check­points can re­li­ably help about 25% of pa­tients as a sin­gle agent, Cel­gene has a big fo­cus on that oth­er 75% of the mar­ket.

Adds Her­sh­berg: “We don’t want to com­pete with 500 oth­er tri­als in com­bi­na­tion with a check­point.”

Rich Mur­ray, CEO Jounce Ther­a­peu­tics

“This is re­al­ly go­ing to al­low us to ex­pand the way we need to,” says Jounce CEO Rich Mur­ray. Cur­rent­ly op­er­at­ing with a staff of 60, Mur­ray ex­pects to add 20 more em­ploy­ees lat­er in the year, with the lead drug go­ing to its first, four-part adap­tive study that starts with safe­ty and PK and leads to the ef­fi­ca­cy stage in the sec­ond half of next year.

That lines up with a pop­u­lar strat­e­gy on can­cer drug de­vel­op­ment, where the tra­di­tion­al break­down in tri­als has now blend­ed in­to a rel­a­tive­ly fast shot at piv­otal re­sults.  The lead pro­gram will be test­ed as a sin­gle agent and in com­bo with a PD-1 check­point in­hibitor. And Jounce plans to push its own check­point pro­gram in­to the clin­ic as a “log­i­cal com­po­nent” of a larg­er on­col­o­gy ef­fort like this.

The plat­form com­pa­ny was launched by Third Rock, ring­ing up $103 mil­lion in two ven­ture rounds from in­vestors deeply im­pressed by its mar­quee sci­en­tif­ic co-founders, Al­li­son and Pam Shar­ma.

The lead drug says a lot about Jounce. It’s fo­cused on ICOS, AKA the In­ducible T cell CO-Stim­u­la­tor, a pro­tein on the sur­face of T cells Jounce — and now Cel­gene — be­lieves can spur an im­mune re­sponse against a pa­tient’s can­cer.  Im­muno-on­col­o­gy has been at the cross­roads of a mul­ti­tude of deals over the past three years, and Cel­gene clear­ly wants to be in the front end of the sec­ond wave — what Mur­ray calls im­muno-on­col­o­gy 2.0 — af­ter Bris­tol-My­ers and Mer­ck led the way with Op­di­vo and Keytru­da for check­point in­hi­bi­tion.

Cel­gene has a big fo­cus on on­col­o­gy, with fran­chis­es for Revlim­id and Abrax­ane fund­ing a large pipeline ef­fort that in­cludes pacts for Juno’s JCAR015 and JCAR017. Af­ter that comes im­munol­o­gy and in­flam­ma­tion.

Mur­ray says Jounce start­ed off 2016 with a va­ri­ety of op­tions on the ta­ble, pri­mar­i­ly re­volv­ing around an IPO or a ma­jor pact. The mar­ket hasn’t co­op­er­at­ed, yet, on the IPO, and af­ter try­ing out var­i­ous “fla­vors” of po­ten­tial deals, Jounce opt­ed for a big scoop of Cel­gene.

It’s fi­nal­ly over: Bio­gen, Ei­sai scrap big Alzheimer’s PhI­I­Is af­ter a pre­dictable BACE cat­a­stro­phe rais­es safe­ty fears

Months after analysts and investors called on Biogen and Eisai to scrap their BACE drug for Alzheimer’s and move on in the wake of a string of late-stage failures and rising safety fears, the partners have called it quits. And they said they were dropping the drug — elenbecestat — after the independent monitoring board raised concerns about…safety.

We don’t know exactly what researchers found in this latest catastrophe, but the companies noted in their release that investigators had determined that the drug was flunking the risk/benefit analysis.

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Deborah Dunsire. Lundbeck

Deb­o­rah Dun­sire is pay­ing $2B for a chance to leap di­rect­ly in­to a block­buster show­down with a few of the world's biggest phar­ma gi­ants

A year after taking the reins as CEO of Lundbeck, Deborah Dunsire is making a bold bid to beef up the Danish biotech’s portfolio of drugs in what will likely be a direct leap into an intense rivalry with a group of giants now carving up a growing market for new migraine drugs.

Bright and early European time the company announced that it will pay up to about $2 billion to buy Alder, a little biotech that is far along the path in developing a quarterly IV formulation for a CGRP drug aimed at cutting back the number of crippling migraines patients experience each month.

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Lisa M. DeAngelis, MSKCC

MSK picks brain can­cer ex­pert Lisa DeAn­ge­lis as its next CMO — fol­low­ing José Basel­ga’s con­tro­ver­sial ex­it

It’s official. Memorial Sloan Kettering has picked a brain cancer expert as its new physician-in-chief and CMO, replacing José Baselga, who left under a cloud after being singled out by The New York Times and ProPublica for failing to properly air his lucrative industry ties.

His replacement, who now will be in charge of MSK’s cutting-edge research work as well as the cancer care delivered by hundreds of practitioners, is Lisa M. DeAngelis. DeAngelis had been chair of the neurology department and co-founder of MSK’s brain tumor center and was moved in to the acting CMO role in the wake of Baselga’s departure.

Penn team adapts CAR-T tech, reengi­neer­ing mouse cells to treat car­diac fi­bro­sis

After establishing itself as one of the pioneer research centers in the world for CAR-T cancer therapies, creating new attack vehicles to eradicate cancer cells, a team at Penn Medicine has begun the tricky transition of using the basic technology for heart repair work.

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Tal Zaks. Moderna

The mR­NA uni­corn Mod­er­na has more ear­ly-stage hu­man da­ta it wants to show off — reach­ing new peaks in prov­ing the po­ten­tial

The whole messenger RNA field has attracted billions of dollars in public and private investor cash gambled on the prospect of getting in on the ground floor. And this morning Boston-based Moderna, one of the leaders in the field, wants to show off a few more of the cards it has to play to prove to you that they’re really in the game.

The whole hand, of course, has yet to be dealt. And there’s no telling who gets to walk with a share of the pot. But any cards on display at this point — especially after being accused of keeping its deck under lock and key — will attract plenty of attention from some very wary, and wired, observers.

“In terms of the complexity and unmet need,” says Tal Zaks, the chief medical officer, “this is peak for what we’ve accomplished.”

Moderna has two Phase I studies it wants to talk about now.

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It's not per­fect, but it's a good start: FDA pan­elists large­ly en­dorse Aim­mune's peanut al­ler­gy ther­a­py

Two days after a fairly benign review from FDA staff, an independent panel of experts largely endorsed the efficacy and safety of Aimmune’s peanut allergy therapy, laying the groundwork for approval with a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy (REMS).

Traditionally, peanut allergies are managed by avoidance, but the threat of accidental exposure cannot be nullified. Some allergists have devised a way to dose patients off-label with peanut protein derived from supermarket products to wean them off their allergies. But the idea behind Aimmune’s product was to standardize the peanut protein, and track the process of desensitization — so when accidental exposure in the real world invariably occurs, patients are less likely to experience a life-threatening allergic reaction.

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Rit­ter bombs fi­nal PhI­II for sole lac­tose in­tol­er­ance drug — shares plum­met

More than two years ago Ritter Pharmaceuticals managed to find enough silver lining in its Phase IIb/III study — after missing the top-line mark — to propel its lactose intolerance toward a confirmatory trial. But as it turned out, the enthusiasm only set the biotech and its investors up to be sorely disappointed.

This time around there’s little left to salvage. Not only did RP-G28 fail to beat placebo in reducing lactose intolerance symptoms, patients in the treatment group actually averaged a smaller improvement. On a composite score measuring symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and gas, patients given the drug had a mean reduction of 3.159 while the placebo cohort saw a 3.420 drop on average (one-sided p-value = 0.0106).

Ear­ly snap­shot of Ad­verum's eye gene ther­a­py sparks con­cern about vi­sion loss

An early-stage update on Adverum Biotechnologies’ intravitreal gene therapy has triggered investor concern, after patients with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) saw their vision deteriorate, despite signs that the treatment is improving retinal anatomy.

Adverum, on Wednesday, unveiled 24-week data from the OPTIC trial of its experimental therapy, ADVM-022, in six patients who have been administered with one dose of the therapy. On average, patients in the trial had severe disease with an average of 6.2 anti-VEGF injections in the eight months prior to screening and an average annualized injection frequency of 9.3 injections.

Alex Ar­faei trades his an­a­lyst's post for a new role as biotech VC; Sanofi vet heads to Vi­for

Too often, Alex Arfaei arrived too late. 

An analyst at BMO Capital Markets, he’d meet with biotech or pharmaceutical heads for their IPO or secondary funding and his brain, trained on a biology degree and six years at Merck and Endo, would spring with questions: Why this biomarker? Why this design? Why not this endpoint? Not that he could do anything about it. These execs were coming for clinical money; their decisions had been made and finalized long ago.