In the bat­tle against kid­ney can­cer, Mer­ck­'s key­stone im­munother­a­py Keytru­da edges in front

Mer­ck $MRK may not just have a leg up over Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb $BMY in the lu­cra­tive field of lung can­cer. It looks like the com­pa­ny’s block­buster check­point in­hibitor Keytru­da — large­ly con­sid­ered the pre­em­i­nent im­munother­a­py — is on its way to es­tab­lish­ing its edge in re­nal can­cer. Ahead of the Gen­i­touri­nary (GU) Can­cers Sym­po­sium lat­er this week, an ab­stract de­tail­ing the re­sults of a piv­otal study test­ing a Keytru­da com­bi­na­tion in pre­vi­ous­ly un­treat­ed re­nal cell car­ci­no­ma (RCC) pa­tients ce­ment­ed the PD-1 drug’s lead­ing sta­tus.

Topline da­ta re­leased last Oc­to­ber showed a com­bi­na­tion of Keytru­da and Pfiz­er’s $PFE ty­ro­sine ki­nase in­hibitor (TKI) In­ly­ta in the KEYNOTE-426 tri­al im­proved over­all sur­vival, pro­gres­sion-free sur­vival and over­all re­sponse rates across risk groups and re­gard­less of PD-L1 sta­tus, com­pared to Pfiz­er’s Su­tent, in first-line RCC pa­tients. Mer­ck of­fered fur­ther de­tail on Mon­day, in­di­cat­ing the Keytru­da com­bo sig­nif­i­cant­ly im­proved OS, re­duc­ing the risk of death by near­ly half (HR 0.53), as well as PFS (HR 0.69).

An­a­lysts cheered the da­ta. Cowen an­a­lysts sug­gest­ed that a TKI/IO com­bo will emerge as the stan­dard of care in first line RCC, and that they an­tic­i­pate sim­i­lar re­sults to emerge from the on­go­ing Check­Mate 9ER tri­al, which is test­ing a com­bi­na­tion of Op­di­vo and Ex­elix­is’ $EX­EL TKI Cabome­tyx ver­sus Su­tent in RCC pa­tients.

Keytru­da+In­ly­ta showed im­pres­sive over­all re­sults and will like­ly gain ap­proval in 1L set­ting. While these da­ta may cause some volatil­i­ty in EX­EL stock…the on­go­ing Check­Mate 9ER tri­al should re­port sim­i­lar if not bet­ter re­sults…Cabo re­mains the pre­ferred TKI for RCC based on NC­CN guide­lines. Ad­di­tion­al­ly, we an­tic­i­pate that many physi­cians will view KEYNOTE-426 as a class ef­fect (strong syn­er­gy be­tween TKI and check­point in­hibitor), and this may even re­sult in an in­cre­men­tal in­crease in cabo use in the front­line set­ting with a check­point in­hibitor pri­or to Check­Mate 9ER re­sults and po­ten­tial la­bel ex­pan­sion.

Cred­it Su­isse’s Vi­mal Di­van said the Keytru­da com­bo’s OS haz­ard ra­tio sur­passed ex­pec­ta­tions, con­sid­er­ing in­vestors had an­tic­i­pat­ed a HR around the 0.60 thresh­old.

“Bris­tol-My­ers has been gain­ing share in the 1L RCC mar­ket with their Op­di­vo + Yer­voy com­bo but Mer­ck’s da­ta ap­pears su­pe­ri­or giv­en a low­er OS HR, a pos­i­tive im­pact on PFS and an im­pact be­ing seen across a broad­er pop­u­la­tion. Op­di­vo + Yer­voy showed an OS ben­e­fit (but not a PFS ben­e­fit) over Su­tent in the Check­Mate-214 tri­al but on­ly in in­ter­me­di­ate and high-risk pa­tients and the ben­e­fit, in our view, be­ing dri­ven by the re­spons­es seen in pa­tients that were PD-L1 pos­i­tive. Over time, the avail­abil­i­ty of a gener­ic ver­sion of In­ly­ta (we as­sume in 2025) could al­so pro­vide a cost ad­van­tage for the Keytru­da + In­ly­ta reg­i­men over Op­di­vo + Yer­voy,” Di­van said.

In its fourth-quar­ter earn­ings call, Mer­ck said it has al­ready sub­mit­ted an ap­pli­ca­tion to mar­ket Keytru­da to treat first line RCC pa­tients, but Pfiz­er and Mer­ck KGaA on Mon­day said the FDA had agreed to a speedy re­view for their ap­pli­ca­tion to mar­ket a com­bi­na­tion of their check­point in­hibitor Baven­cio and In­ly­ta in RCC pa­tients — the agency is ex­pect­ed to make its de­ci­sion by June.

“(The) Baven­cio com­bi­na­tion with In­ly­ta may get to mar­ket in the US first, hav­ing been grant­ed pri­or­i­ty re­view by the FDA…based on da­ta from JAVELIN Re­nal 101. How­ev­er, we view Keytru­da + In­ly­ta as like­ly to over­take Baven­cio + In­ly­ta as well giv­en greater physi­cian com­fort with Keytru­da over Baven­cio and the pos­i­tive OS da­ta that KEYNOTE-426 de­liv­ered at the first in­ter­im analy­sis (as com­pared to JAVELIN Re­nal 101 where we on­ly saw a PFS ben­e­fit at the in­ter­im analy­sis),” Di­van added.

Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House (Photo: AFP)

Trump’s HHS claims ab­solute au­thor­i­ty over the FDA, clear­ing path to a vac­cine EUA

The top career staff at the FDA has vowed not to let politics overrule science when looking at vaccine data this fall. But Alex Azar, who happens to be their boss’s boss, apparently won’t even give them a chance to stand in the way.

In a new memorandum issued Tuesday last week, the HHS chief stripped the FDA and other health agencies under his purview of their rule making ability, asserting all such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times first obtained and reported the details of the September 15 bulletin.

#ES­MO20: Push­ing in­to front­line, Mer­ck and Bris­tol My­ers duke it out with new slate of GI can­cer da­ta

Having worked in parallel for years to move their respective PD-1 inhibitors up to the first-line treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb finally have the data at ESMO for a showdown.

Comparing KEYNOTE-590 and CheckMate-649, of course, comes with the usual caveats. But a side-by-side look at the overall survival numbers also offer some perspective on a new frontier for the reigning checkpoint rivals, both of whom are claiming to have achieved a first.

President Donald Trump (via AP Images)

Signs of an 'Oc­to­ber Vac­cine Sur­prise' alarm ca­reer sci­en­tists

President Donald Trump, who seems intent on announcing a Covid-19 vaccine before Election Day, could legally authorize a vaccine over the objections of experts, officials at the FDA and even vaccine manufacturers, who have pledged not to release any vaccine unless it’s proved safe and effective.

In podcasts, public forums, social media and medical journals, a growing number of prominent health leaders say they fear that Trump — who has repeatedly signaled his desire for the swift approval of a vaccine and his displeasure with perceived delays at the FDA — will take matters into his own hands, running roughshod over the usual regulatory process.

Eli Lilly CSO Dan Skovronsky (file photo)

UP­DAT­ED: #ES­MO20: Eli Lil­ly shows off the da­ta for its Verzenio suc­cess. Was it worth $18 bil­lion?

The press release alone, devoid of any number except for the size of the trial, added nearly $20 billion to Eli Lilly’s market cap back in June. Now investors and oncologists will get to see if the data live up to the hype.

On Sunday at ESMO, Eli Lilly announced the full results for its Phase III MonarchE trial of Verzenio, showing that across over 5,000 women who had had HR+, HER2- breast cancer, the drug reduced the odds of recurrence by 25%. That meant 7.8% of the patients on the drug arm saw their cancers return within 2 years, compared with 11.3% on the placebo arm.

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Greg Friberg (File photo)

#ES­MO20: Am­gen team nails down sol­id ear­ly ev­i­dence of AMG 510’s po­ten­tial for NSCLC, un­lock­ing the door to a wave of KRAS pro­grams

The first time I sat down with Amgen’s Greg Friberg to talk about the pharma giant’s KRAS G12C program for sotorasib (AMG 510) at ASCO a little more than a year ago, there was high excitement about the first glimpse of efficacy from their Phase I study, with 5 of 10 evaluable non-small cell lung cancer patients demonstrating a response to the drug.

After decades of failure targeting KRAS, sotorasib offered the first positive look at a new approach that promised to open a door to a whole new approach by targeting a particular mutation to a big target that had remained “undruggable” for decades.

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#ES­MO20: Out to beat Tagris­so, J&J touts 100% ORR for EGFR bis­pe­cif­ic/TKI com­bo — fu­el­ing a quick leap to PhI­II

J&J’s one-two punch on EGFR-mutant non-small cell lung cancer has turned up some promising — although decidedly early — results, fueling the idea that there’s yet room to one up on third-generation tyrosine kinase inhibitors.

Twenty out of 20 advanced NSCLC patients had a response after taking a combination of an in-house TKI dubbed lazertinib and amivantamab, a bispecific antibody targeting both EGFR and cMET engineered on partner Genmab’s platform, J&J reported at ESMO. All were treatment-naïve, and none has seen their cancer progress at a median follow-up of seven months.

#ES­MO20: Bris­tol My­ers marks Op­di­vo's sec­ond ad­ju­vant win — eye­ing a stan­dard of care gap

Moving into earlier and earlier treatment lines, Bristol Myers Squibb is reporting that adjuvant treatment with Opdivo has doubled the time that esophageal or gastroesophageal junction cancer patients stay free of disease.

With the CheckMate-577 data at ESMO, CMO Samit Hirawat said, the company believes it can change the treatment paradigm.

While a quarter to 30% of patients typically achieve a complete response following chemoradiation therapy and surgery, the rest do not, said Ronan Kelly of Baylor University Medical Center. The recurrence rate is also high within the first year, Hirawat added.

Clay Siegall (Life Science Washington via YouTube)

#ES­MO20: Seat­tle Ge­net­ics eyes 4th ap­proval with new da­ta in a crowd­ed field

Does Seattle Genetics have another approval on its hands?

The last 12 months, not so great for the world, has been great for Seattle Genetics. The company landed two separate FDA approvals, signed a $4.5 billion deal with Merck and watched antibody-drug conjugates — the technology they spent years developing to broad industry skepticism — emerge suddenly as one of the most popular approaches in oncology. And on Monday at ESMO, the company and their partners at Genmab unveiled the data behind the ADC it hopes will provide its next major FDA approval.

Jonathan Rigby, Immune Regulation group CEO

Im­mune Reg­u­la­tion, tak­ing two clin­i­cal pro­grams to 're­set' the im­mune sys­tem, nets $53M+ Se­ries B

A little under two years after a company rebranding, Immune Regulation is taking an even bigger step toward advancing its goals.

Formerly known as Peptinnovate, the British biotech announced a $53.4 million Series B early Monday morning, helping to further advance two clinical programs in rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. Though those are the two initial indications the company is focusing on, CEO Jonathan Rigby told Endpoints News he hopes the candidates can be applied to a broad swath of autoimmune disorders.