Com­pu­ta­tion­al sci­en­tists de­sign a new IL-2 can­cer drug and spin it out in­to a biotech start­up

One of the Holy Grails in the boom­ing im­muno-on­col­o­gy re­search field right now in­volves find­ing an IL-2 drug that can be used safe­ly and ef­fec­tive­ly to com­bat can­cer, with­out the im­mense tox­i­c­i­ty that has large­ly side­lined the orig­i­nal IL-2 Pro­leukin. Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb paid Nek­tar $1.85 bil­lion in up­front cash to part­ner on NK­TR-214 — which has since come un­der a cloud of un­cer­tain­ty over flail­ing re­sponse rates in their key demon­stra­tion study com­bin­ing it with Op­di­vo.

Now a group of sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton says they built an IL-2 pro­tein ther­a­py all their own, and they’ve launched a new biotech — Ne­oleukin — to take it for­ward from mouse stud­ies to­ward the clin­ic.

Umut Ulge

De­scrib­ing their work to a writer at UW Med­i­cine, the group says they de­signed their pro­tein to bind specif­i­cal­ly to IL-2  be­ta and gam­ma re­cep­tors to whip up a more po­tent T cell re­sponse to can­cer while steer­ing clear of CD25 to cir­cum­vent the tox­ic re­ac­tion. By do­ing that they cre­at­ed a lab mod­el of the drug that the sci­en­tists were able to ratch­et up the dose on with­out the lethal re­ac­tion.

They al­so added a com­ple­men­tary com­po­nent for IL-15 to in­crease the ef­fi­ca­cy and dubbed the drug Neo-2/15, de­scrib­ing it as par­tic­u­lar­ly small and sta­ble. And the game plan is to con­tin­ue to use their com­pu­ta­tion­al skills to im­prove the drug.

“Neo-2/15 has ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties that are at least as good as or bet­ter than nat­u­ral­ly oc­cur­ring IL-2, but it was com­pu­ta­tion­al­ly de­signed to be much less tox­ic,” said Umut Ulge, one of the lead au­thors of a pa­per pub­lished in Na­ture.

An il­lus­tra­tion de­pict­ing how the new pro­tein, in red, binds on­ly to the be­ta and gam­ma re­cep­tors, and not to cells with a third kind of re­cep­tor. (UW MED­I­CINE)

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion

Ne­oleukin, though, is hard­ly the on­ly ri­val to the throne that Nek­tar and Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb have been striv­ing for. Lau­ra Shawver’s Syn­thorx has al­so been an­gling for the clin­ic — in H1 of this year — with their drug can­di­date Syn­thorin IL-2, backed by Or­bimed and Medicxi. The biotech $THOR went pub­lic just a few weeks ago, rais­ing $150 mil­lion.

Last No­vem­ber Nek­tar Ther­a­peu­tics $NK­TR man­aged to add 1 more pa­tient out of its 38 evalu­able stage 4 melanoma pa­tients to the win col­umn with its close­ly-watched 3-month up­date on Op­di­vo/NK­TR-214’s ob­jec­tive re­sponse rate. That man­aged to nudge up the ORR from 50% — a fig­ure that rout­ed Nek­tar’s stock at AS­CO — to 53%. But the sci­en­tists al­so pushed up the com­plete re­sponse rate to 24%, main­tain­ing they were sat­is­fied with the im­proved re­sponse they were see­ing.

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.

NYU surgeon transplants an engineered pig kidney into the outside of a brain-dead patient (Joe Carrotta/NYU Langone Health)

No, sci­en­tists are not any clos­er to pig-to-hu­man trans­plants than they were last week

Steve Holtzman was awoken by a 1 a.m. call from a doctor at Duke University asking if he could put some pigs on a plane and fly them from Ohio to North Carolina that day. A motorcyclist had gotten into a horrific crash, the doctor explained. He believed the pigs’ livers, sutured onto the patient’s skin like an external filter, might be able to tide the young man over until a donor liver became available.

UP­DAT­ED: Agenus calls out FDA for play­ing fa­vorites with Mer­ck, pulls cer­vi­cal can­cer BLA at agen­cy's re­quest

While criticizing the FDA for what may be some favoritism towards Merck, Agenus on Friday officially pulled its accelerated BLA for its anti-PD-1 inhibitor balstilimab as a potential second-line treatment for cervical cancer because of the recent full approval for Merck’s Keytruda in the same indication.

The company said the BLA, which was due for an FDA decision by Dec. 16, was withdrawn “when the window for accelerated approval of balstilimab closed,” thanks to the conversion of Keytruda’s accelerated approval to a full approval four months prior to its PDUFA date.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

How to col­lect and sub­mit RWD to win ap­proval for a new drug in­di­ca­tion: FDA spells it out in a long-await­ed guid­ance

Real-world data are messy. There can be differences in the standards used to collect different types of data, differences in terminologies and curation strategies, and even in the way data are exchanged.

While acknowledging this somewhat controlled chaos, the FDA is now explaining how biopharma companies can submit study data derived from real-world data (RWD) sources in applicable regulatory submissions, including new drug indications.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Luc Boblet, Egle Therapeutics CEO

A new Treg play­er emerges with $46M and back­ing from Take­da

In recent years, the chorus of biotechs and Big Pharma backers targeting regulatory T cells — also known as “Tregs” — for cancer and autoimmune diseases has only grown louder.

The newest voice is from Egle Therapeutics, which sang out a $46.4 million Series A round on Friday led by LSP and Bpifrance through their InnoBio 2 fund. Takeda’s venture arm also chipped in, about a year after the pharma struck a research pact with the Paris-based upstart.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Marty Duvall, Oncopeptides CEO

On­copep­tides stock craters as it pulls can­cer drug Pepax­to from the mar­ket

Shares of Oncopeptides crashed more than 70% in early Friday trading after the company said it’s pulling its multiple myeloma drug Pepaxto (melphalan flufenamide) from the US market after failing a confirmatory trial. The move will force the company to close its US and EU business units and enact significant layoffs.

The FDA had scheduled an adcomm meeting next Thursday to discuss Pepaxto, which first won accelerated approval in February and costs about $19,000 per course of treatment. The committee was to weigh in on whether the confirmatory trial demonstrated a worse overall survival in the treatment arm compared to the control arm.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Pfiz­er pitch­es its Covid-19 vac­cine for younger chil­dren ahead of ad­comm next week

Pfizer will present its case to the FDA’s vaccine adcomm next week, seeking authorization for a lower-dose version of its Covid-19 vaccine for kids ages 5 through 12, which the Biden administration said will likely begin rolling out early next month.

Two primary doses of the 10 µg vaccine (the dose for those ages 12 and up is 30 μg) given 3 weeks apart in this group of children “have shown a favorable safety and tolerability profile, robust immune responses against all variants of concern including Delta, and vaccine efficacy of 90.7% against laboratory-confirmed symptomatic COVID-19,” the company said in briefing documents ahead of next Tuesday’s meeting of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee.

David Lockhart, ReCode Therapeutics CEO

Pfiz­er throws its weight be­hind LNP play­er eye­ing mR­NA treat­ments for CF, PCD

David Lockhart did not see the meteoric rise of messenger RNA and lipid nanoparticles coming.

Thanks to the worldwide fight against Covid-19, mRNA — the genetic code that can be engineered to turn the body into a mini protein factory — and LNPs, those tiny bubbles of fat carrying those instructions, have found their way into hundreds of millions of people. Within the biotech world, pioneers like Alnylam and Intellia have demonstrated just how versatile LNPs can be as a delivery vehicle for anything from siRNA to CRISPR/Cas9.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

David Livingston (Credit: Michael Sazel for CeMM)

Renowned Dana-Far­ber sci­en­tist, men­tor and bio­phar­ma ad­vi­sor David Liv­ingston has died

David Livingston, the Dana-Farber/Harvard Med scientist who helped shine a light on some of the key molecular drivers of breast and ovarian cancer, died unexpectedly last Sunday.

One of the senior leaders at Dana-Farber during his nearly half century of work there, Livingston was credited with shedding light on the genes that regulate cell growth, with insights into inherited BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that helped lay the scientific foundation for targeted therapies and earlier detection that have transformed the field.