Cure­Vac’s lead mR­NA pro­gram flunks a crit­i­cal PhI­Ib study, rais­ing ques­tions for high-pro­file biotech uni­corns

In­g­mar Ho­err

Cure­Vac’s lead­ing mR­NA pro­gram CV9104, a prostate can­cer vac­cine, has failed a crit­i­cal Phase IIb study. And that sting­ing set­back for the most ad­vanced clin­i­cal study in the field will raise fresh ques­tions about a com­plex new tech­nol­o­gy that has at­tract­ed bil­lions of dol­lars in in­vest­ment cash.

The Ger­man biotech re­port­ed that not on­ly did CV9104 fail the pri­ma­ry end­point on im­prov­ing over­all sur­vival, there was al­so no im­prove­ment on pro­gres­sion-free sur­vival over a place­bo.

Cure­Vac’s can­cer vac­cine is a 6-mR­NA con­coc­tion aimed at whip­ping up an im­mune sys­tem at­tack by en­cod­ing for 6 anti­gens over ex­pressed in prostate can­cer.

The Ger­man biotech – run by CEO In­g­mar Ho­err – has raised $360 mil­lion for its work, pri­mar­i­ly backed by Ger­man bil­lion­aire Di­et­mar Hopp along with ad­di­tion­al fund­ing from Bill Gates’ foun­da­tion, both in­trigued by the rev­o­lu­tion­ary po­ten­tial of in­struct­ing cells to pro­duce ther­a­peu­tics.

The most promi­nent com­pa­ny in the mes­sen­ger RNA space is Mod­er­na, a Boston-based biotech which has raised $1.9 bil­lion and just this week de­tailed a full pipeline of 5 clin­i­cal-stage ther­a­pies and an­oth­er 7 pre­clin­i­cal projects. Mod­er­na CEO Stephane Ban­cel is al­so work­ing on a can­cer vac­cine with Mer­ck, but he’s al­ready sought to dis­tin­guish their ap­proach to an in­di­vid­u­al­ly tai­lored ther­a­py with the shared-anti­gen ap­proach that Cure­Vac has.

I asked Ban­cel about the Cure­Vac set­back, and he re­spond­ed:

“Can­cer vac­cines con­tin­ues to be a high risk en­deav­or, which is why we part­nered with Mer­ck, a leader in im­muno-on­col­o­gy.”

Whether that kind of dis­tinc­tion will help Mod­er­na avoid get­ting dinged by Cure­Vac’s fail­ure, though, has yet to be seen. Mod­er­na has come un­der re­peat­ed at­tack by STAT’s Dami­an Garde, who has fo­cused on ques­tions re­gard­ing the tech­nol­o­gy and Mod­er­na’s cau­tious ap­proach in tack­ling vac­cines first, with a lead­ing ef­fort on pan­dem­ic flu. But that’s the long game that Ban­cel is de­ter­mined to play as he lines up his own first round of da­ta on those pro­grams deemed most like­ly to suc­ceed.

The lat­est fail­ure at Cure­Vac al­so fol­lows a wave of clin­i­cal flops for can­cer vac­cines in gen­er­al, which proved far too weak to di­rect a sig­nif­i­cant im­mune sys­tem at­tack on can­cer. That first-wave fail­ure was fol­lowed by check­point in­hibitors, which ef­fec­tive­ly take the brake off the im­mune sys­tem, as well as per­son­al­ized vac­cines that seek out the in­di­vid­ual anti­gens that will make the most com­pelling dif­fer­ence for pa­tients. But that is al­so still very ear­ly in the de­vel­op­ment process.

Cure­Vac’s next step will like­ly fo­cus on a com­bo ap­proach, match­ing their mR­NA tech with check­points, chemo and so on, which is al­ready part of the plan.

Hal Barron, GSK

Break­ing the death spi­ral: Hal Bar­ron talks about trans­form­ing the mori­bund R&D cul­ture at GSK in a crit­i­cal year for the late-stage pipeline

Just ahead of GlaxoSmithKline’s Q2 update on Wednesday, science chief Hal Barron is making the rounds to talk up the pharma giant’s late-stage strategy as the top execs continue to woo back a deeply skeptical investor group while pushing through a whole new R&D culture.

And that’s not easy, Barron is quick to note. He told the Financial Times:

I think that culture, to some extent, is as hard, in fact even harder, than doing the science.

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Aca­dia is mak­ing the best of it, but their lat­est PhI­II Nu­plazid study is a bust

Acadia’s late-stage program to widen the commercial prospects for Nuplazid has hit a wall. The biotech reported that their Phase III ENHANCE trial flat failed. And while they $ACAD did their best to cherry pick positive data wherever they can be found, this is a clear setback for the biotech.

With close to 400 patients enrolled, researchers said the drug flunked the primary endpoint as an adjunctive therapy for patients with an inadequate response to antipsychotic therapy. The p-value was an ugly 0.0940 on the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale, which the company called out as a positive trend.

Their shares slid 12% on the news, good for a $426 million hit on a $3.7 billion market cap at close.

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Some Big Phar­mas stepped up their game on da­ta trans­paren­cy — but which flunked the test?

The nonprofit Bioethics International has come out with their latest scorecard on data transparency among the big biopharmas in the industry — flagging a few standouts while spotlighting some laggards who are continuing to underperform.

Now in its third year, the nonprofit created a new set of standards with Yale School of Medicine and Stanford Law School to evaluate the track record on trial registration, results reporting, publication and data-sharing practice.

Busy Gilead crew throws strug­gling biotech a life­line, with some cash up­front and hun­dreds of mil­lions in biobucks for HIV deal

Durect $DRRX got a badly needed shot in the arm Monday morning as Gilead’s busy BD team lined up access to its extended-release platform tech for HIV and hepatitis B.

Gilead, a leader in the HIV sector, is paying a modest $25 million in cash for the right to jump on the platform at Durect, which has been using its technology to come up with an extended-release version of bupivacaine. The FDA rejected that in 2014, but Durect has been working on a comeback.

In­tec blitzed by PhI­II flop as lead pro­gram fails to beat Mer­ck­'s stan­dard com­bo for Parkin­son’s

Intec Pharma’s $NTEC lead drug slammed into a brick wall Monday morning. The small-cap Israeli biotech reported that its lead program — coming off a platform designed to produce a safer, more effective oral drug for Parkinson’s — failed the Phase III at the primary endpoint.

Researchers at Intec, which has already seen its share price collapse over the past few months, says that its Accordion Pill-Carbidopa/Levodopa failed to prove superior to Sinemet in reducing daily ‘off’ time. 

Cel­gene racks up third Ote­zla ap­proval, heat­ing up talks about who Bris­tol-My­ers will sell to

Whoever is taking Otezla off Bristol-Myers Squibb’s hands will have one more revenue stream to boast.

The drug — a rising star in Celgene’s pipeline that generated global sales of $1.6 billion last year — is now OK’d to treat oral ulcers associated with Behçet’s disease, a common symptom for a rare inflammatory disorder. This marks the third FDA approval for the PDE4 inhibitor since 2014, when it was greenlighted for plaque psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis.

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Francesco De Rubertis

Medicxi is rolling out its biggest fund ever to back Eu­rope's top 'sci­en­tists with strange ideas'

Francesco De Rubertis built Medicxi to be the kind of biotech venture player he would have liked to have known back when he was a full time scientist.

“When I was a scientist 20 years ago I would have loved Medicxi,’ the co-founder tells me. It’s the kind of place run by and for investigators, what the Medicxi partner calls “scientists with strange ideas — a platform for the drug hunter and scientific entrepreneur. That’s what I wanted when I was a scientist.”

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Af­ter a decade, Vi­iV CSO John Pot­tage says it's time to step down — and he's hand­ing the job to long­time col­league Kim Smith

ViiV Healthcare has always been something unique in the global drug industry.

Owned by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer — with GSK in the lead as majority owner — it was created 10 years ago in a time of deep turmoil for the field as something independent of the pharma giants, but with access to lots of infrastructural support on demand. While R&D at the mother ship inside GSK was souring, a razor-focused ViiV provided a rare bright spot, challenging Gilead on a lucrative front in delivering new combinations that require fewer therapies with a more easily tolerated regimen.

They kept a massive number of people alive who would otherwise have been facing a death sentence. And they made money.

And throughout, John Pottage has been the chief scientific and chief medical officer.

Until now.

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Vlad Coric (Biohaven)

In an­oth­er dis­ap­point­ment for in­vestors, FDA slaps down Bio­haven’s re­vised ver­sion of an old ALS drug

Biohaven is at risk of making a habit of disappointing its investors.

Late Friday the biotech $BHVN reported that the FDA had rejected its application for riluzole, an old drug that they had made over into a sublingual formulation that dissolves under the tongue. According to Biohaven, the FDA had a problem with the active ingredient used in a bioequivalence study back in 2017, which they got from the Canadian drugmaker Apotex.

Apotex, though, has been a disaster ground. The manufacturer voluntarily yanked the ANDAs on 31 drugs — in late 2017 — after the FDA came across serious manufacturing deficiencies at their plants in India. A few days ago, the FDA made it official.

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