Oncology, R&D

GSK’s long-quiet cancer R&D group is ready to make some noise as it mounts a breakout late-stage effort

SAN FRANCISCO — Four years after GSK swapped out its commercial portfolio of cancer drugs to Novartis, new CEO Emma Walmsley is now ready to foster a global role for the cancer research group that was left in the patient hands of Axel Hoos.

Axel Hoos

The star program belongs to a BCMA antibody-drug conjugate titled GSK2857916, newly equipped with the FDA’s breakthrough designation for the hardest cases of multiple myeloma. Hoos, who now works for cancer drug legend Hal Barron, believes that his team is on pace to steer this to an approval and launch in 2020. And the oncology chief is now busily looking to beef up the cancer drug pipeline with new deals.

By all accounts, BCMA can make a huge difference in myeloma, as we’ve been seeing from some jaw-dropping results recorded in a pair of leading CAR-T programs. GSK’s ADC strategy is focused on advancing a drug that has some impressive, though frankly not as stunning, data. Not all patients are going to be able to be eligible for CAR-Ts — especially in the community centers where the bulk of therapy is provided.

Hoos has been laboring quietly but persistently looking to the day when GSK would make a bid for the market with a late-stage pipeline in oncology. Once Walmsley took the CEO’s job, it became quickly evident that oncology would get the spotlight.

Luke Miels

Luke Miels came in from AstraZeneca, where he had worked closely with Pascal Soriot on cancer. Laurie Glimcher joined the board from Dana-Farber, ready to advise on the science. Walmsley restructured the R&D group, scaling down on diseases and offering added support for oncology as one of 4 key fields they would go after. Then GSK followed through and in-licensed a high profile cell therapy program from Adaptimmune. Barron’s recent arrival as R&D chief — taking all the reins for a multibillion-dollar research effort — sealed the deal.

This week Hoos has been spending time in meetings at JPMorgan in San Francisco, talking over plans for bringing in new drugs and technology to help shape their return to the cancer therapy market.

“JPMorgan is a great stimulator,” says Hoos with a smile. He sat down on Tuesday afternoon to discuss his work and shared some of his thoughts on the dealmaking now in the works.

“We will do another deal in cell therapy,” he says, “I’m pretty confident of that.”

And the hunt is on for synergistic tech that can be used to help advance these new platform drugs, with an eye to making the cancer operation profitable after gaining the first new approvals.

There are some things GSK won’t do in oncology R&D, including their own PD-1 program.

“We will not be a leader in PD-1,” he says. “We have no illusions and it makes no sense.” And there’s no IDO, no CD-19 program, also areas where leaders are well advanced in the field.

Hal Barron

But they have allied themselves closely with Merck to use Keytruda in combination with their own in-house programs on ICOS and OX40 agonists and so on. In the meantime, the contract with Novartis allows the Swiss multinational to offer a bid on the drugs they like, and requires GSK to enter into good faith negotiations with them if they decide to partner. But GSK’s hands aren’t tied.

After years on the sidelines, Hoos believes GSK’s cancer group is ready for some breakout successes.

“We are moving this thing as fast as we can move it,” he says, with the vision that GSK can become a leader in the field.


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