Juno us­es lethal neu­ro­tox lessons to guide Goldilocks for­mu­la for its next-gen CAR-T

WASH­ING­TON, DC — Neu­ro­tox­i­c­i­ty killed JCAR015 right along with 5 pa­tients in the lead piv­otal study, de­rail­ing Juno Ther­a­peu­tics $JUNO and al­low­ing first No­var­tis and then Gilead/Kite to surge way ahead with the first two ap­provals in the field. But Juno now plans to take what it’s learned from that lethal im­plo­sion and make over its next drug — JCAR017 — in­to what it promis­es will be a dra­mat­i­cal­ly im­proved drug that can leapfrog the lead­ers.

Mark Gilbert

Mark Gilbert, the chief med­ical of­fi­cer at Juno, ap­peared at the So­ci­ety for Im­munother­a­py of Can­cer (#SITC2017) meet­ing over the week­end to out­line where the biotech has reached in its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and how it’s ap­ply­ing those lessons to make JCAR017 in­to the im­pres­sive ther­a­py that they’ve be­gun up­dat­ing along the way to a planned mar­ket­ing ap­pli­ca­tion.

“We al­ways thought it was mul­ti­ple things that were con­tribut­ing,” Gilbert told me in a one-on-one at SITC. “We just couldn’t iden­ti­fy them as well as we can to­day.”

That fail­ure led to one of the most dead­ly re­ac­tions tracked in the clin­ic in re­cent biotech times.

Ini­tial­ly, Juno halt­ed its study of JCAR015 af­ter a pair of deaths from brain swelling — cere­bral ede­ma — trig­gered a safe­ty alert, but al­most im­me­di­ate­ly got a green light from the FDA to get back in­to the clin­ic af­ter pin­ning the blame on flu­dara­bine, which is used to prep pa­tients for the per­son­al­ized cell ther­a­py.

Once dos­ing be­gan again, though, an­oth­er three pa­tients died in quick or­der, killed by the same neu­ro­tox­ic re­ac­tion to the ther­a­py and forc­ing Juno back to the draw­ing board to un­der­stand bet­ter what went wrong, and how to con­trol it in their next on­go­ing pro­gram for JCAR017.

“The ear­ly and rapid ex­pan­sion (of cells) we saw ap­pears to cor­re­late with high­er lev­els of IL-15,” a growth fac­tor for T cells, says Gilbert. “We now know that IL-15 was in­creased be­fore they ever got CAR-T cells.” And that was as­so­ci­at­ed with the com­bined use of flu­darib­ine and cy­clophos­phamide.

“We like to see CAR-T cell ex­pan­sion that peaks out 11, 12, 14 days,” he says, look­ing for a steady Goldilocks ap­proach to the ramp up — nei­ther too hot or too cold. “We see that in JCAR017 in TRAN­SCEND. In ROCK­ET that hap­pens in 7 days in some of these pa­tients. That ex­pan­sion is what we want to avoid.”

“As para­dox­i­cal as it sounds,” he adds, “the is­sue wasn’t so much flu­darib­ine as the two drugs to­geth­er. We’ve moved to a sub­stan­tial­ly less in­ten­sive lym­phode­ple­tion reg­i­men.”

But there’s more. Juno has been work­ing on de­liv­er­ing a more per­son­al­ized cell ther­a­py, look­ing to as­sign spe­cial lev­els of ther­a­py cal­i­brat­ed to a va­ri­ety of fac­tors, in­clud­ing the type of can­cer pa­tients have, their age, the lev­el of dis­ease bur­den a pa­tient has or the pres­ence of anti­gens.

“Dif­fer­ent dis­ease set­tings have risk of ear­ly ex­pan­sion,” he adds.

Juno — and some of the oth­er com­pa­nies in this area, in­clud­ing No­var­tis — al­so notes that there is an­i­mal da­ta to sug­gest that the 4-1BB cos­tim­u­la­to­ry do­main now in use could al­so play a role in the phar­ma­co­ki­net­ics, which is why mov­ing from CD28 on JCAR015 to 4-1BB in JCAR017 is be­ing watched close­ly. Ul­ti­mate­ly, that could al­so have a bear­ing on Gilead’s pi­o­neer­ing CAR-T Yescar­ta, which us­es CD28.

CAR-T has al­ways been a high-risk, high-re­ward kind of ther­a­py, re­served ini­tial­ly for some very sick pa­tients. Cel­lec­tis, with its off-the-shelf ap­proach, has just come out of its own two-month clin­i­cal hold. As the ther­a­pies be­come more main­stream, that risk has to be bet­ter con­trolled, with the com­pa­nies that are best at man­u­fac­tur­ing and de­liv­ery look­ing for a dom­i­nant mar­ket share.

Juno may have been bad­ly de­layed. But it’s still in the big­ger race now un­der­way.

How Pa­tients with Epilep­sy Ben­e­fit from Re­al-World Da­ta

Amanda Shields, Principal Data Scientist, Scientific Data Steward

Keith Wenzel, Senior Business Operations Director

Andy Wilson, Scientific Lead

Real-world data (RWD) has the potential to transform the drug development industry’s efforts to predict and treat seizures for patients with epilepsy. Anticipating or controlling an impending seizure can significantly increase quality of life for patients with epilepsy. However, because RWD is secondary data originally collected for other purposes, the challenge is selecting, harmonizing, and analyzing the data from multiple sources in a way that helps support patients.

Re­gen­eron's Evkeeza shows promise in curb­ing high triglyc­erides, but will ge­net­ic dis­par­i­ties lim­it use?

When Regeneron scored an early approval for lipid lowering antibody Evkeeza back in February, the drugmaker cracked open a new pathway to lower abnormally high cholesterol levels. Now, Regeneron is chasing high triglycerides as well with some promising mid-stage data — but will genetic restrictions limit the drug’s use?

Regeneron’s Evkeeza (evinacumab) cut median triglyceride levels by more than 800 mg/dL (57%) in patients with a rare disorder causing abnormally high triglyceride levels compared with an overall increase of 50 mg/dL (1.8%) in participants on placebo, according to Phase II data presented Sunday at the virtual American College of Cardiology meeting.

$DNA is once again on NYSE; FDA clears Soliris chal­lenger for the mar­ket; Flag­ship’s think­ing big again with eR­NA; and more

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I still remember the uncertainty in the air last year when nobody was sure whether ASCO would cancel their in-person meeting. But it’s now back again for the second virtual conference, and Endpoints News is here for it. Check out our 2-day event reviewing the landscape of cancer R&D and send news our way.

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As­traZeneca's Farx­i­ga missed big on Covid-19 study, but it's tak­ing SGLT2 safe­ty da­ta as a sil­ver lin­ing

AstraZeneca hasn’t seen many setbacks in recent months for SGLT2 inhibitor Farxiga, which broke ground in heart failure and kidney disease regardless of diabetes diagnosis. But the British drugmaker had to admit defeat in taking Farxiga into Covid-19, but follow-up results add a bit of a silver lining to that trial’s safety data.

Of hospitalized Covid-19 patients dosed with AstraZeneca’s Farxiga, 11.2% experienced an organ failure or died after 30 days of therapy compared with 13.8% of those given placebo, according to follow-up data from the DARE-19 study revealed Sunday at the virtual American College of Cardiology meeting.

Pfiz­er, Bris­tol My­er­s' Eliquis flops in post-heart surgery pa­tients, spurring an 'un­ex­plained sig­nal' in cer­tain deaths

Pfizer and Bristol Myers Squibb’s non-warfarin blood thinner Eliquis has raced out to become the most prescribed drug of its class on the market — even overtaking warfarin’s long-time lead. But in tricky-to-treat patients after a valve replacement, an investigator-sponsored study couldn’t turn up benefit and raised a troubling safety signal.

Eliquis failed to show benefit over standard of care in preventing serious clinical outcomes after a transaortic valve replacement (TAVR) and was linked to an “unexplained signal” in a subset of populations with a higher rate of non-CV deaths who did not need blood thinners apart from the surgery, according to data presented Saturday at the virtual American College of Cardiology meeting.

Gene ther­a­py from Bio­gen's $800M buy­out flops in mid-stage study, deal­ing blow to new am­bi­tions

The #2 candidate from Biogen’s $800 million ocular gene therapy buyout has failed in a mid-stage trial, dealing an early blow to the big biotech’s plans to revitalize its pipeline with new technologies.

Biogen announced that the candidate, an experimental treatment for a rare and progressive form of blindness called X-linked retinitis pigmentosa (XLRP), failed to sufficiently improve vision in patients’ treated eye — patients only received an injection in one eye — after a year, on a standard scale, compared to their untreated eye. The company said they saw “positive trends” on several secondary endpoints, including visual acuity, but declined to say whether the trial actually hit any of those endpoints.

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Michael Dell (Richard Drew, AP Images)

'Dude, you're get­ting a Del­l' — as a new deep-pock­et biotech in­vestor

What happens when you marry longtime insiders in the global biotech VC game with the family fund of tech billionaire Michael Dell, a synthetic biology legend out of MIT and Harvard and the former director of the NCI?

Today, the answer is a newly financed, $200 million biotech SPAC now cruising the industry for a top player interested in finding a short cut to Nasdaq.

Orion Biotech Opportunities priced their blank check company today, raising $200 million with Dell’s multibillion-dollar MSD group’s commitment on investing another $20 million in a forward-purchase agreement.

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Bris­tol My­ers backs up its case for heart drug mava­camten as FDA weighs app in car­diomy­opa­thy

When Bristol Myers Squibb signed off on its $13 billion acquisition of MyoKardia back in October, it was making a big bet that lead drug mavacamten could prove a game changer in cardiac myopathy. Now, with the drug up for FDA review, Bristol Myers is backing up its case with new quality of life data.

Patients dosed with myosin inhibitor mavacamten posted a clinically significant increase in scores on the Kansas City Cardiomyopathy Questionnaire, a catch-all summary of symptoms and quality of life markers, over placebo at 30 weeks, according to data from the Phase III EXPLORER-HCM study presented Saturday at the virtual American College of Cardiology meeting.

Vas Narasimhan (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

No­var­tis whiffs on En­tresto study af­ter heart at­tacks — but that does­n't mean it's go­ing down qui­et­ly

If Novartis learned one thing from its interaction with the FDA over its latest heart failure approval for Entresto, it was that missing a primary endpoint may not be the nail in the coffin. Now, Entresto has missed again on a late-stage study in high-risk heart patients, and it’s already sowing the seeds for a path forward regardless.

Novartis’ Entresto couldn’t best standard-of-care ramipril in staving off a composite of deaths and heart failure events in patients with left ventricular systolic dysfunction and/or pulmonary congestion who have had a prior heart attack, according to topline data from the Phase III PARADISE-MI study revealed Saturday at the virtual American College of Cardiology meeting.