FDA ad­vis­ers back No­var­tis’ game-chang­ing per­son­al­ized CAR-T for can­cer, ap­proval in sight

The FDA’s ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee on can­cer drugs has of­fered a group thumbs-up for No­var­tis’ trail­blaz­ing CAR-T CTL019 (ti­s­agen­le­cleu­cel), mark­ing a key mile­stone for the phar­ma gi­ant as it nears the like­ly launch of a ground­break­ing per­son­al­ized cell ther­a­py for B-cell acute lym­phoblas­tic leukemia.

These out­side ex­perts at the FDA vot­ed 10 to 0 to urge an ap­proval for this drug, of­fer­ing some key sup­port af­ter reg­u­la­tors care­ful­ly re­viewed the com­plex man­u­fac­tur­ing process as well as the safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy pro­files of this ther­a­py.

Key to No­var­tis’ suc­cess was the high re­mis­sion rate as well as 6-month and 12-month sur­vival da­ta for chil­dren and young adult pa­tients who were run­ning out of op­tions. The pa­tient num­bers were small, but the re­spons­es were ex­tra­or­di­nary for the pa­tients who re­spond­ed, with an 83% over­all re­mis­sion rate and 79% over­all sur­viv­abil­i­ty rate at 12 months – hit­ting the pri­ma­ry end­point.

“This is a nov­el ther­a­py, there’s an un­met med­ical need, a strong ef­fi­ca­cy and a good risk mit­i­ga­tion strat­e­gy,” not­ed com­mit­tee mem­ber James Gul­ley from the Na­tion­al Can­cer In­sti­tute.

Alan Rein from the Cen­ter for Can­cer Re­search cit­ed the drug’s “re­mark­able clin­i­cal suc­cess­es,” though he not­ed some lin­ger­ing con­cerns with the long-term risks in­volved. And oth­ers echoed those re­marks, rais­ing the prospect that CAR-T can be a game-chang­er in this field.

David Leb­wohl

David Leb­wohl, No­var­tis’ chief of the CTL019 pro­gram, told the pan­el ear­li­er in the day that these out­comes were un­like any­thing he’d seen in 20 years of prac­tice.

But this ther­a­py is al­so linked with threat­en­ing side ef­fects. While pa­tients on this en­gi­neered CAR cell ther­a­py have been re­peat­ed­ly hit by po­ten­tial­ly lethal cas­es of cy­tokine re­lease syn­drome and neu­ro­log­i­cal tox­i­c­i­ty with the threat of new ma­lig­nan­cies, ad­vis­ers were clear­ly will­ing to ac­cept the risk in or­der to achieve the po­ten­tial gains. There were no cas­es of cere­bral ede­ma, in­ves­ti­ga­tors not­ed, but oth­er CAR-Ts have been linked to such cas­es.

No­var­tis al­so not­ed the death of a pa­tient from a cere­bral he­m­or­rhage. Al­so, 9 pa­tients had to dis­con­tin­ue the tri­al af­ter CTL019 couldn’t be man­u­fac­tured for them – a key short­fall that No­var­tis will have to man­age care­ful­ly if it gets a green light for man­u­fac­tur­ing.

Sev­er­al of the com­mit­tee mem­bers, though, of­fered No­var­tis a vote of con­fi­dence on their risk mit­i­ga­tion strat­e­gy and the abil­i­ty of spe­cial­ists in the field to han­dle side ef­fects.

The last three years of de­vel­op­ment work at No­var­tis has been marked by or­ga­ni­za­tion­al re­struc­tur­ing along with the ad­vance and re­treat of ri­val ther­a­pies – all while sort­ing through a threat­en­ing list of tox­i­c­i­ty fac­tors. But No­var­tis’ team main­tained their lead, de­liv­er­ing on a promise No­var­tis CEO Joe Jimenez made to per­sist with the de­vel­op­ment of a dra­mat­ic new ap­proach to treat­ing can­cer.

Ob­servers crowd­ed in­to the FDA’s pre­sen­ta­tion room this morn­ing, rub­bing shoul­ders with CAR-T celebs like Penn’s Carl June with many, many more look­ing on on­line. But the re­view in­volves more than just one ther­a­py at one com­pa­ny. The ad­vis­ers gath­ered at a time that the FDA has com­mit­ted it­self to ac­cel­er­at­ing the de­vel­op­ment of ma­jor new ther­a­pies un­der new FDA com­mis­sion­er Scott Got­tlieb, and CTL019 will be viewed as a test case for the agency’s open­ness to new ther­a­pies that are not yet thor­ough­ly probed in ad­vanced clin­i­cal tri­als.

The vote al­so un­der­scores ODAC’s in­grained ac­cep­tance of mod­er­ate risk when it comes to treat­ing pa­tients dy­ing of can­cer.

Close on No­var­tis’ heels is a team from Kite, a CAR-T-fo­cused biotech which had hoped to be the first to the mar­ket. Kite to­day got a front row seat to the way the agency views these ther­a­pies, and it’s like­ly to take ad­van­tage of that in its own up­com­ing reg­u­la­to­ry re­view.

Be­hind them comes Juno, with a new lead drug, and a group of play­ers like Cel­lec­tis, which are in the ear­ly stages of de­vel­op­ing what they hope can be off-the-shelf ther­a­pies that should be less ex­pen­sive to make and mar­ket.

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

The End­points 11: They've got mad mon­ey and huge am­bi­tions. It's time to go big or go home

These days, selecting a group of private biotechs for the Endpoints 11 spotlight begins with a sprint to get ahead of IPOs and the M&A teams at Big Pharma. I’ve had a couple of faceplants earlier this year, watching some of the biotechs on my short list choose a quick leap onto Nasdaq or into the arms of a buyer.

Vividion, you would have been a great pick for the Endpoints 11. I’m sorry I missed you.

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Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis Gene Ther­a­pies? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1,500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

FDA+ roundup: Bs­U­FA III ready for show­time, court tells FDA to re-work com­pound­ing plan, new guid­ance up­dates and more

The FDA has now spelled out what exactly will be included in the third iteration of Biosimilar User Fee Act (BsUFA) from 2023 through 2027, which similarly to the prescription drug deal, sets fees that industry has to pay for submitting applications, in exchange for firm timelines that the agency must meet.

This latest deal includes several sweeteners for the biosimilar industry, which has yet to make great strides in the US market, with shorter review timelines for safety labeling updates and updates to add or remove an indication that does not contain efficacy data.

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Joshua Liang, Clover Biopharmaceuticals CEO

With world still in sore need of dos­es, Clover says its Covid-19 vac­cine is 67% ef­fec­tive in Phase III

With concerns about the Delta variant rising and much of the world still in desperate need of vaccine doses, a Chinese biotech announced Wednesday that a new shot has shown positive results in a large trial against Covid-19, including new variants.

Clover Biopharmaceuticals announced Wednesday that its vaccine candidate showed 79% efficacy against the Delta variant in a Phase II/III trial dubbed Spectra, and 67% effective against Covid-19 overall.

Jean Bennett (Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP Images)

Lux­tur­na in­ven­tor Jean Ben­nett starts a new gene ther­a­py com­pa­ny to tack­le rare dis­eases left be­hind by phar­ma, VCs

A few years ago Jean Bennett found herself in a surprising place for a woman who invented the first gene therapy ever approved in the United States: No one, it seemed, wanted her work.

Bennett, who designed and co-developed Luxturna, approved in 2018 for a rare form of blindness, had kept building new gene therapies for eye diseases at her University of Pennsylvania lab. But although the results in animals looked promising, pharma companies and investors kept turning down the pedigreed ophthalmology professor.

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Maureen Hillenmeyer, Hexagon Bio CEO

Hexa­gon Bio rais­es $61M to con­tin­ue ef­forts to turn fun­gi in­to drugs

A year after raising a $47 million launch round, the fungi-loving drug hunters at Hexagon Bio have more than doubled their coffers.

Hexagon announced today that it raised another $61 million for its efforts to design cancer and infectious disease drugs based on insights mined from the DNA in millions of species of fungi. The new financing brings Hexagon’s committed funding to over $108 million.