Keytru­da/epaca­do­stat com­bo crash­es in PhI­II melanoma study, rais­ing ques­tions about the fu­ture of IDO for In­cyte

A close­ly-watched Phase III study com­bin­ing Mer­ck’s PD-1 star Keytru­da with In­cyte’s IDO1 drug epaca­do­stat for metasta­t­ic melanoma has failed, cast­ing a pall over the fu­ture of this com­bi­na­tion ap­proach.

Ab­sent a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in pro­gres­sion-free sur­vival, as well as the like­ly fail­ure of the drug com­bi­na­tion to ex­tend over­all sur­vival, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors are halt­ing the study. In­cyte stuck with the top-line re­sults in their re­lease, promis­ing to roll out the full da­ta set lat­er. And they made it clear in a call with an­a­lysts this morn­ing that the ECHO-301 study fail­ure “has a neg­a­tive im­pact on the prob­a­bil­i­ty of suc­cess of the oth­er (com­bi­na­tion) stud­ies” — send­ing a shock wave through the I/O field.

In­cyte’s shares plunged 23% on the news, wip­ing out more than $3.5 bil­lion in mar­ket cap. The im­pli­ca­tions for oth­er IDO1 drugs al­so dam­aged oth­er com­pa­nies in the field, in­clud­ing NewLink $NLNK, down 44%, as well as Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb $BMY down 2.6%.

Steven Stein

Mer­ck is one of a slate of bio­phar­ma com­pa­nies to com­bine their check­points with In­cyte’s IDO drug, look­ing to im­prove pa­tients chances for liv­ing longer with can­cer. The fail­ure of this first late-stage test, af­ter stok­ing hopes for some ma­jor ad­vances, now leaves In­cyte’s drug $IN­CY in a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion, cre­at­ing a cri­sis for CEO Hervé Hop­penot.

Epaca­do­stat was num­ber 3 on Eval­u­ate Phar­ma’s top 10 list of 2018 launch­es, with close to $2 bil­lion in pro­ject­ed peak sales es­ti­mates. And UBS an­a­lysts gave this study a 100% chance of suc­cess, not­ing the high ex­pec­ta­tions — and hype — fo­cused on this drug.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors tracked a haz­ard ra­tio of 1.00, which “leaves no doubt that in this study… the com­pound didn’t per­form,” said Steven Stein, the chief med­ical of­fi­cer, in the call. And there was no pos­i­tive glim­mer of hope seen in any sub­group analy­sis. “Giv­en those haz­ard ra­tios it is go­ing to be dif­fi­cult to dis­cern a sub­group with suf­fi­cient ef­fect.”

The fail­ure of the study al­so rais­es the chances that oth­er tri­als in the pro­gram may need to be ad­just­ed, he added, with pos­si­ble sta­tis­ti­cal and bio­mark­er mod­i­fi­ca­tions.

An­a­lysts had been en­cour­aged last sum­mer with the lat­est look at da­ta from a sin­gle-arm melanoma study, mak­ing this one of the most an­tic­i­pat­ed stud­ies of 2018. In­cyte faces a dif­fi­cult task now in re­build­ing hopes for a block­buster fu­ture as the field awaits a long string of read outs from com­bi­na­tion tri­als.

An­tic­i­pat­ing some big re­turns, a whole host of play­ers has dived in­to IDO. A re­cent study from the Can­cer Re­search In­sti­tute found that there were 18 IDOs in the pipeline. Epaca­do­stat was the most ad­vanced of them all, but there have been a num­ber of set­backs, in­clud­ing a pro­gram pur­sued by Genen­tech, which the com­pa­ny aban­doned af­ter see­ing weak re­sults. And a grow­ing line­up of fail­ures will boost fears that this is the wrong tar­get.

That woe­ful feel­ing didn’t help mat­ters at Bris­tol-My­ers, which has one of the most ad­vanced IDOs in the clin­ic af­ter In­cyte’s pro­gram. Bris­tol-My­ers paid $1.25 bil­lion to ob­tain their drug in the Flexus buy­out, which was im­pli­cat­ed in a suit In­cyte filed claim­ing that a for­mer staffer had stolen trade se­crets on their drug, hand­ing them off to Flexus. Sev­er­al an­a­lysts have out­lined rea­sons why they think that Bris­tol-My­ers has the bet­ter of the two drugs.

With the alarm bells ring­ing loud­ly all day Fri­day, NewLink re­spond­ed by putting out a re­lease as­sert­ing that its drug in­dox­i­mod had a “dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed mech­a­nism of ac­tion.” The biotech al­so said that it would do a re­view of its pro­grams in light of the set­back at In­cyte.

The failed study will help gain “un­der­stand­ing of the role of IDO1 in­hi­bi­tion in com­bi­na­tion with PD-1 an­tag­o­nists, and may in­form our broad­er epaca­do­stat clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment pro­gram,” said Steven Stein, chief med­ical of­fi­cer, In­cyte. “We re­main ded­i­cat­ed to trans­form­ing the treat­ment of can­cer and will con­tin­ue to ex­plore how IDO1 in­hi­bi­tion and oth­er nov­el mech­a­nisms can po­ten­tial­ly im­prove out­comes for pa­tients in need.”


Im­age: Hervé Hop­penot, In­cyte CEO at an End­points News event, Jan­u­ary 2018. END­POINTS NEWS

The 20 un­der 40: In­side the next gen­er­a­tion of bio­phar­ma lead­ers

“Each generation needs a new music,” Francis Crick wrote in 1988, reflecting back on his landmark discovery. Crick was 35, then, in 1953, when he began working with a 23-year-old named James Watson, and 37 when the pair unveiled the double helix. Rosalind Franklin, whose diffraction work undergirded their metal model, was 32.

The model would become the score for a new era in biology, one devoted to cracking the basic structures turning inside life. Subsequent years would bring new conductors and new rhythms: Robert Swanson, 29 when he convinced a 39-year-old Herb Boyer to build a company off his work and call it Genentech; Phillip Sharp, 29 when he discovered RNA splicing and 34 when he co-founded Biogen; Frances Arnold, 36 when she pioneered directed evolution; Feng Zhang, 31 when he published his CRISPR paper.

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Chart-top­ping ven­ture cash? Strong deal flow? In the month Covid-19 ripped around the globe? Yup

It turns out that even sending everyone from the CEO to rank-and-file staffers home to work in the middle of a Category 5 pandemic wasn’t enough to put a crimp in the flow of venture cash into biopharma. And even dealmaking held its own against the howling winds of misfortune — largely because a group of savvy players was quick to adjust to the new reality.

Our deal expert Chris Dokomajilar ran the numbers for us on a month-to-month basis and found that not only was venture money flowing during the panicky month of March, but it was also hitting home in record sums compared to the last 26 months of deal flow.

Say what?

As you can see in the top chart below, Dokomajilar outlined how the industry racked up $2.41 billion in total for March, just barely ahead of one other topper during the heady days of August 2018.

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FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn and President Donald Trump at a press briefing on March 19, 2020. (AP Images)

Biotech ex­ecs warn that the FDA is fum­bling their re­sponse to the Covid-19 open-door promise, de­lay­ing progress

A few days ago the FDA touted a procedure for Covid-19 meds that committed the agency to immediate action for developers, formalizing a high-speed response that’s been promised for weeks.

Bioregnum Opinion Column by John Carroll

Decisions that once required months would be measured in hours under the Coronavirus Treatment Acceleration Program. “In many cases” trial protocols could be hammered out in less than a single day. If you had a potential solution to the crisis, the appropriate staffer would be in touch “to get studies underway quickly.”

It would be the ultimate high-speed regulatory pathway from Phase I to approval. Red tape was banished.

But it’s clear that for some — and quite likely many — biopharma execs, the actual agency response has not measured up to the promise. Beyond the front ranks of advanced companies in the field, like Gilead, or for drugs endorsed by President Trump, it may not even come close.

“The first response is this form letter everyone gets,” says one biotech CEO who’s reached out to the FDA on Covid-19. And when you try to cut through that, the ball gets dropped as it is passed from top officials to the frontline staff actually charged with getting things done.

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GSK's Hal Bar­ron buys a $250M stake in George Scan­gos' Vir and makes a bee­line to the clin­ic with Covid-19 an­ti­bod­ies

GlaxoSmithKline is diving straight into the swirling waters of Covid-19 R&D work, and investing $250 million to grab a chunk of equity in one of the emerging stars in infectious disease research to make it official.

GSK put out word this morning that it is partnering with Vir Biotechnology $VIR, the infectious disease startup founded in the Bay Area by former Biogen CEO George Scangos. They’re planning a leap into Phase II studies for 2 preclinical antibody candidates — VIR-7831 and VIR-7832 — that have been engineered to target the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

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UP­DAT­ED: A small, ob­scure biotech just won big with their IPO. In this mar­ket. Are you kid­ding me?

How could a small, largely unknown biotech that emerged from stealth mode just months ago with early-stage cancer programs jump onto Wall Street in the middle of a Category 6 financial hurricane and sail through with a $165 million IPO?

And what does that mean for the rest of the industry waiting to see just how much damage global lockdowns will wreak on clinical development?

The biotech is a company called Zentalis. The crew there nabbed an $85 million crossover round late last year — notably waiting 5 years before waving the numbers around to attract attention, according to my read of a FierceBiotech story. Perceptive joined in, but the syndicate was not in general the kind of marquee affair that gets tongues wagging.

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Ready to de­clare a de­fin­i­tive come­back in two months, Im­munomedics stops PhI­II ear­ly, re­cruits new CEO

More than a year ago, hit by a surprise complete response letter from the FDA, Immunomedics bid its then-CEO, Michael Pehl, adieu and began a 15-month quest to resolve the manufacturing issues cited in the CRL and seek a new leader — all the while moving forward with a Phase III study on its lead drug for metastatic triple-negative breast cancer.

Today the biotech said their stars are finally aligning. Not only is Novartis Oncology vet Harout Semerjian coming on board as CEO to steer what they believe will be a smooth sail to a new PDUFA date in June, Immunomedics has also been informed that their late-stage trial can be stopped early due to “compelling evidence of efficacy.”

An­oth­er day, an­oth­er boat­load for biotech. Deer­field adds $840M to rush of ven­ture dol­lars

The biotech dollars just keep rolling in.

Even as the world economy faces an economic contraction unprecedented in nature, biotech venture capital firms are announcing huge new investment pots. The latest? Deerfield Management Co.

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Small mol­e­cules, bi­o­log­ics and now gene ther­a­pies: Ger­many's Evotec adds an­oth­er feath­er to its R&D cap

German drug discovery company Evotec — which has a thriving rolodex of biopharma partners such as Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Sanofi, and Takeda — is now venturing into gene therapies.

The company swallowed Seattle-based Just Biotherapeutics, a company focused on reducing the cost of manufacturing protein therapies last year. It is now setting up a dedicated R&D site for gene therapies in Austria, in an effort to achieve a “modality-agnostic” repertoire — small molecules, biologics and now gene therapies.

A pair of PhI­II fail­ures spells last rites for Men­lo’s once-promis­ing Mer­ck drug

Four months after an intercontinental merger, Menlo Therapeutics is counting yet another pair of trial failures — ones with significant consequences for the companies, their shareholders and the drug.

In two pivotal Phase III trials, Menlo’s lead drug serlopitant failed to treat pruritus associated with prurigo nodularis — basically itchiness from a particular skin disease that causes red lesions on a person’s arms or legs. Serlopitant has long been the company’s only drug and as recently as 2018, it looked promising enough to support a stock price of $37. In April of that year, a Phase II failure demolished the stock price overnight: $35 to $9. Other subsequent stumbles trickled the ticker down to just above $2.