In stag­ger­ing set­back, tox­ic re­ac­tion kills Cel­lec­tis’ first CAR-T pa­tient, forc­ing tri­al halt

The FDA has forced Cel­lec­tis $CLLS to slam the brakes on two clin­i­cal tri­als of its off-the-shelf ver­sion of a CAR-T ther­a­py af­ter their first pa­tient was killed by a lethal­ly tox­ic re­ac­tion to treat­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to the biotech, which is based in Paris with R&D op­er­a­tions in New York, a 78-year-old pa­tient suf­fer­ing from blas­tic plas­ma­cy­toid den­drit­ic cell neo­plasm (BPD­CN) died eight days af­ter re­ceiv­ing the biotech’s first dose of the cell ther­a­py. He ex­pe­ri­enced a lethal re­ac­tion as cy­tokine re­lease syn­drome hit, along with a grade 4 case of cap­il­lary leak syn­drome. A sep­a­rate study which al­so treat­ed one pa­tient is un­der­way for acute myeloid leukemia.

The com­pa­ny’s stock was ham­mered by the bad news, drop­ping about 30% in pre-mar­ket trad­ing and shed­ding more than $400 mil­lion of its mar­ket cap.

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, nei­ther of the first two pa­tients treat­ed with UCART123 ex­pe­ri­enced graft ver­sus host dis­ease, one of the chief fears in­volved in an al­lo­gene­ic ther­a­py that takes do­nat­ed pa­tient cells then adapts them in­to a ready-to-use ther­a­py, by­pass­ing a com­plex step re­quired by the first CAR-Ts.

The FDA ap­proved the first per­son­al­ized CAR-T from No­var­tis just days ago, and Kite is ex­pect­ed to get an OK of its own soon. But the move by the FDA to slap a hold on these off-the-shelf ther­a­pies rais­es a host of thorny ques­tions for Cel­lec­tis.

Juno $JUNO was al­so forced to halt a study of its lead CAR-T last year — one of the pi­o­neer­ing au­tol­o­gous ver­sions that ex­tracts pa­tient cells and then adapts them be­fore re­in­fus­ing them in­to pa­tients — af­ter pa­tients died from cere­bral ede­ma. Then in an as­ton­ish­ing­ly short pe­ri­od of just a few days, reg­u­la­tors agreed to let re­searchers pro­ceed with the piv­otal tri­al af­ter a ques­tion­able change-up in the pre­con­di­tion­ing reg­i­men used to pre­pare pa­tients for the cell ther­a­py. Al­most im­me­di­ate­ly af­ter treat­ment re­sumed, three more pa­tients died fol­lowed by a tri­al halt and the sub­se­quent de­ci­sion to scrap a drug Juno and the FDA clear­ly didn’t com­plete­ly un­der­stand.

An­dre Chouli­ka

Will that dead­ly mis­take by reg­u­la­tors force them to be ex­tra sen­si­tive to this quick and ear­ly death in the UCART123 stud­ies? Or will reg­u­la­tors be quick to green-light this new ther­a­py back in­to the study, con­fi­dent that years of treat­ing CRS — a com­mon re­ac­tion among pa­tients re­ceiv­ing CAR-T ther­a­py — can be man­aged?

Cel­lec­tis spelled out the down­ward spi­ral ex­pe­ri­enced by its first pa­tient.

About a week ago, Cel­lec­tis re­ports, the da­ta safe­ty mon­i­tor­ing board sug­gest­ed low­er­ing the dose — to 6.25×104 UCART123 cells per kilo­gram — in both stud­ies and cap­ping cy­clophos­phamide to a to­tal dose of 4g over three days. But the FDA fol­lowed up by de­mand­ing a halt to the BPD­CN study along with the sep­a­rate study on acute myeloid leukemia, which has al­so seen one pa­tient treat­ed. That pa­tient ex­pe­ri­enced a grade 3 case of CRS and a grade 4 case of cap­il­lary leak syn­drome — both of which re­solved with­in a few days.

Cap­il­lary leak syn­drome is a con­di­tion in which leaky blood ves­sels can cause a po­ten­tial­ly lethal drop in blood pres­sure.

In the ab­sence of any sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion, in­vestors like Biren Amin at Jef­feries spec­u­lat­ed on caus­es and de­fects. His note:

We think there is a chance that CRS events could be mit­i­gat­ed up­on low­er­ing the dose of UCART123 be­yond the DSMB rec­om­men­da­tion and treat­ing CRS symp­toms more ag­gres­sive­ly, al­though ul­ti­mate­ly we look to more in­for­ma­tion. These events may be par­tial­ly due to the UCART123 cells be­ing from a healthy donor but, giv­en the dearth of da­ta, we think CLLS needs to ap­proach through a more holis­tic ap­proach and utliliz­ing key re­search on safe­ty from au­tol­o­gous CAR-T tri­als over the last 3-4 years. How­ev­er, we be­lieve the Grd 3 in­fec­tion (po­ten­tial­ly a re­sult of a neu­tropenic state) and Grd 4 CLS events have the po­ten­tial to be tar­get spe­cif­ic. For the lat­ter, we note that sAEs in­volv­ing CLS has been re­port­ed for Stem­line’s (STML, NC) CD123-di­rect­ed SL-401 ther­a­peu­tic. It’s un­clear if CLLS al­so re­quired pa­tients in their stud­ies to have nor­mal ejec­tion frac­tions and cer­tain pre-spec­i­fied al­bu­min lev­els at time of study en­try.

Cel­lec­tis will get ham­mered by in­vestors to­day, par­tic­u­lar­ly as the en­thu­si­asm for all things CAR-T seen in the past few days has swelled every­one’s stock price. Cel­lec­tis shares have soared past the $32 mark. The safe­ty is­sue will chal­lenge CEO An­dré Chouli­ka, a fierce and un­abashed pro­po­nent of all things Cel­lec­tis.

“Cel­lec­tis is the first com­pa­ny do­ing CAR-T,” he told me dur­ing an in­ter­view at AS­CO two years ago. “We are the first gene edit­ing com­pa­ny in the world,” dat­ing back to 1999. “There was no gene edit­ing be­fore us; we are the lead­ers.”

To­day, Cel­lec­tis and Chouli­ka will be lead­ing a charge to re­solve their biggest chal­lenge to date. It won’t be easy.

ZS Per­spec­tive: 3 Pre­dic­tions on the Fu­ture of Cell & Gene Ther­a­pies

The field of cell and gene therapies (C&GTs) has seen a renaissance, with first generation commercial therapies such as Kymriah, Yescarta, and Luxturna laying the groundwork for an incoming wave of potentially transformative C&GTs that aim to address diverse disease areas. With this renaissance comes several potential opportunities, of which we discuss three predictions below.

Allogenic Natural Killer (NK) Cells have the potential to displace current Cell Therapies in oncology if proven durable.

Despite being early in development, Allogenic NKs are proving to be an attractive new treatment paradigm in oncology. The question of durability of response with allogenic therapies is still an unknown. Fate Therapeutics’ recent phase 1 data for FT516 showed relatively quicker relapses vs already approved autologous CAR-Ts. However, other manufacturers, like Allogene for their allogenic CAR-T therapy ALLO-501A, are exploring novel lymphodepletion approaches to improve persistence of allogenic cells. Nevertheless, allogenic NKs demonstrate a strong value proposition relative to their T cell counterparts due to comparable response rates (so far) combined with the added advantage of a significantly safer AE profile. Specifically, little to no risk of graft versus host disease (GvHD), cytotoxic release syndrome (CRS), and neurotoxicity (NT) have been seen so far with allogenic NK cells (Fig. 1). In addition, being able to harness an allogenic cell source gives way to operational advantages as “off-the-shelf” products provide improved turnaround time (TAT), scalability, and potentially reduced cost. NKs are currently in development for a variety of overlapping hematological indications with chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-Ts) today, and the question remains to what extent they will disrupt the current cell therapy landscape. Click for more details.

Graphic: Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

What kind of biotech start­up wins a $3B syn­di­cate, woos a gallery of mar­quee sci­en­tists and re­cruits GSK's Hal Bar­ron as CEO in a stun­ner? Let Rick Klaus­ner ex­plain

It started with a question about a lifetime’s dream on a walk with tech investor Yuri Milner.

At the beginning of the great pandemic, former NCI chief and inveterate biotech entrepreneur Rick Klausner and the Facebook billionaire would traipse Los Altos Hills in Silicon Valley Saturday mornings and talk about ideas.

Milner’s question on one of those mornings on foot: “What do you want to do?”

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Hal Barron, Endpoints UKBIO20 (Jeff Rumans)

'Al­tos was re­al­ly a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­ni­ty': Hal Bar­ron re­flects on his big move

By all accounts, Hal Barron had one of the best jobs in Big Pharma R&D. He made more than $11 million in 2020, once again reaping more than his boss, Emma Walmsley, who always championed him at every opportunity. And he oversaw a global R&D effort that struck a variety of big-dollar deals for oncology, neurodegeneration and more.

Sure, the critics never let up about what they saw as a rather uninspiring late-stage pipeline, where the rubber hits the road in the Big Pharma world’s hunt for the next big near-term blockbuster, but the in-house reviews were stellar. And Barron was firmly focused on bringing up the success rate in clinical trials, holding out for the big rewards of moving the dial from an average 10% success rate to 20%.

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Executive Director of the EMA Emer Cooke (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment signs off on strength­en­ing drug reg­u­la­tor's abil­i­ty to tack­le short­ages

The European Parliament on Thursday endorsed a plan to increase the powers of the European Medicines Agency, which will be better equipped to monitor and mitigate shortages of drugs and medical devices.

By a vote of 655 to 31, parliament signed off on a provisional agreement reached with the European Council from last October, in which the EMA will create two shortage steering groups (one for drugs, the other for devices), a new European Shortages Monitoring Platform to facilitate data collection and increase transparency, and on funding for the work of the steering groups, task force, working parties and expert panels that are to be established.

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FDA+ roundup: FDA's neu­ro­science deputy de­parts amid on­go­ing Aduhelm in­ves­ti­ga­tions; Califf on the ropes?

Amid increased scrutiny into the close ties between FDA and Biogen prior to the controversial accelerated approval of Aduhelm, the deputy director of the FDA’s office of neuroscience has called it quits after more than two decades at the agency.

Eric Bastings will now take over as VP of development strategy at Ionis Pharmaceuticals, the company said Wednesday, where he will provide senior clinical and regulatory leadership in support of Ionis’ pipeline.

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Sec­ondary patents prove to be key in biosim­i­lar block­ing strate­gies, re­searchers find

While the US biosimilars industry has generally been a disappointment since its inception, with FDA approving 33 biosimilars since 2015, just a fraction of those have immediately followed their approvals with launches. And more than a handful of biosimilars for two of the biggest blockbusters of all time — AbbVie’s Humira and Amgen’s Enbrel — remain approved by FDA but still have not launched because of legal settlements.

Hal Barron (GSK via YouTube)

GSK R&D chief Hal Bar­ron jumps ship to run a $3B biotech start­up, Tony Wood tapped to re­place him

In a stunning switch, GlaxoSmithKline put out word early Wednesday that R&D chief Hal Barron is exiting the company after 4 years — a relatively brief run for the man chosen by CEO Emma Walmsley in late 2017 to turn around the slow-footed pharma giant.

Barron is being replaced by Tony Wood, a close associate of Barron’s who’s taking one of the top jobs in Big Pharma R&D. He’ll be closer to home, though, for GSK. Barron has been running a UK and Philadelphia-based research organization from his perch in San Francisco.

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Kenneth Galbraith, incoming Zymeworks CEO

Zymeworks re­places half its C-suite, aims to lay off 25% of to­tal work­force as new CEO takes over

New Zymeworks CEO Kenneth Galbraith is aiming to hit the ground running when his tenure officially begins next month, but he’ll be doing so with a much different looking team.

In a lengthy press release outlining the biotech’s 2022 goals, Galbraith said Zymeworks will be laying off at least 25% of its staff over the course of the year. Half of its C-suite will also be replaced immediately as Galbraith looks to remake the company in his image after Ali Tehrani, Zymeworks’ founder and CEO since 2003, stepped down two weeks ago.

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CBO: Medicare ne­go­ti­a­tions will ham­per drug de­vel­op­ment more than pre­vi­ous­ly thought

As President Biden’s Build Back Better Act — and, with it, potentially the Democrats’ last shot at major drug pricing reforms in the foreseeable future — remains on life support, the Congressional Budget Office isn’t helping their case.

The CBO last week released a new slide deck, outlining an update to its model on how Medicare negotiations might take a bite out of new drugs making it to market. The new model estimates a 10% long-term reduction in the number of new drugs, whereas a previous CBO report from August estimated that 8% fewer new drugs will enter the market over 30 years.