AACR: Lit­tle Apex­i­gen steals the show with their CD40/Op­di­vo cock­tail as AACR gets un­der­way

Now that the pi­o­neer PD-1 check­points have hit the mar­ket and start­ed earn­ing their bil­lions, re­searchers in on­col­o­gy are fo­cused on the next big thing in can­cer R&D: us­ing new com­bi­na­tions to reach tu­mors that re­main stub­born­ly re­sis­tant to ap­proved ther­a­pies.

To that end, you can count Apex­i­gen as the ear­ly win­ner in the AACR meet­ing in At­lanta.

Joyson Karakun­nel

A group of in­ves­ti­ga­tors or­ga­nized by The Park­er In­sti­tute for Can­cer Im­munother­a­py in part­ner­ship with the Can­cer Re­search In­sti­tute con­duct­ed an ear­ly-stage clin­i­cal tri­al that com­bined a pair of chemother­a­pies with Apex­i­gen’s CD40 drug APX005M, with or with­out Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb’s Op­di­vo. In the first part of the Phase I tri­al for ad­vanced pan­cre­at­ic can­cer, they want­ed to see how CD40 — de­signed to spur an im­mune at­tack — worked with a PD-1, which is de­signed to take the brakes off an im­mune sys­tem at­tack.

This is the first tri­al where the in­sti­tute held the IND as the prin­ci­pal spon­sor, says Joyson Karakun­nel, med­ical di­rec­tor for The Park­er In­sti­tute and vice pres­i­dent-clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment at Ar­cus Bio­sciences, who took some time on Sun­day to ex­plain the work. And they’re par­tic­u­lar­ly hap­py that Park­er was able to or­ga­nize and ex­e­cute an aca­d­e­m­ic study like this in just 18 months, of­fer­ing a new and more ef­fi­cient ap­proach to drug de­vel­op­ment that Sean Park­er had hoped for when he found­ed the in­sti­tute.

Of the 24 pa­tients who were evalu­able by AACR, 20 ex­pe­ri­enced a re­sponse with tu­mor shrink­age. And a few of those pa­tients have re­spons­es that en­dured for more than 12 months. That’s par­tic­u­lar­ly pos­i­tive for pan­cre­at­ic can­cer, which has been re­sis­tant to PD-1 and where dis­ease pro­gres­sion typ­i­cal­ly starts in about 5 months.

“To quote (first au­thor) Mark O’Hara, you do not see those kind of wa­ter­fall plots, so it is ex­treme­ly en­cour­ag­ing,” says Karakun­nel.

Tox­i­c­i­ty, how­ev­er, is a key con­cern. Thir­teen pa­tients — 54% — dis­con­tin­ued the reg­i­men due to an ad­verse event from the cock­tail. Ten of the ad­verse events were se­ri­ous. In­ves­ti­ga­tors fol­lowed up with me to note that 9 of the 13 con­tin­ued on at least one of the drugs and 4 stopped al­to­geth­er.

So why use Apex­i­gen’s drug? There are oth­er CD40s out there.  

Karakun­nel ex­plains that se­nior au­thor Bob Von­der­hei­de was fa­mil­iar with the Apex­i­gen pro­gram and thought it would be a good choice. Odd­ly, though, while the biotech had no trou­ble dis­cussing its $73 mil­lion raise from a group of Chi­nese in­vestors last sum­mer and put out their own re­lease Sun­day, the com­pa­ny turned down an in­ter­view re­quest.

The tri­al is now push­ing ahead to the Phase II por­tion of the tri­al with the high, 0.3 mg dose of Apex­i­gen’s drug. And the pri­vate, ven­ture-backed Apex­i­gen re­searchers plan to roll out more da­ta on APX005M in com­bi­na­tion ther­a­py for pa­tients with metasta­t­ic or un­re­sectable melanoma who have pro­gressed on an­ti-PD-1/PD-L1 ther­a­py. 

Hal Barron and Rick Klausner (GSK, Lyell)

Ex­clu­sive: GSK’s Hal Bar­ron al­lies with Rick Klaus­ner’s $600M cell ther­a­py start­up, look­ing to break new ground blitz­ing sol­id tu­mors

LONDON — Chances are, you’ve heard little or nothing about Rick Klausner’s startup Lyell. But that ends now.

Klausner, the former head of the National Cancer Institute, former executive director for global health at the Gates Foundation, co-founder at Juno and one of the leaders in the booming cell therapy field, has brought together one of the most prominent teams of scientists tackling cell therapy 2.0 — highlighted by a quest to bridge a daunting tech gap that separates some profound advances in blood cancers with solid tumors. And today he’s officially adding Hal Barron and GlaxoSmithKline as a major league collaborator which is pitching in a large portion of the $600 million he’s raised in the past year to make that vision a reality.

“We’ve being staying stealth,” Klausner tells me, then adding with a chuckle: “and going back to stealth after this.”

“Cell therapy has a lot of challenges,” notes Barron, the R&D chief at GSK, ticking off the resistance put up by solid tumors to cell therapies, the vein-to-vein time involved in taking immune cells out of patients, engineering them to attack cancer cells, and getting them back in, and more. “Over the years Rick and I talked about how it would be wonderful to take that on as a mission.”

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First place fin­ish: Eli Lil­ly just moved to fran­chise leader with their sec­ond mi­graine drug OK in 1 year

In a rare twist for Eli Lilly’s historically slow-moving R&D group, the pharma giant has seized bragging rights to a first-in-class new drug approval. And all signs point to an aggressive marketing followup as they look to outclass some major franchise rivals hobbled by internal dissension.

The FDA came through with an OK for lasmiditan on Friday evening, branding it as Reyvow and lining it up — once a substance classification comes through from the DEA — for a major market release. The oral drug binds to 5-HT1F receptors and is designed to stop an acute migraine after it starts. That makes it a complementary therapy to their CGRP drug Emgality, which has a statistically significant impact on preventing attacks.

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Allogene HQ Open House on September 17, 2019 in South San Francisco. (Jeff Rumans, Endpoints News)

The next 10 years: Where is biotech head­ed?

The last 10 years have seen a revolution in drug development. Timelines have shortened, particularly in oncology. Regulators have opened up. Investment has skyrocketed. China became a player. Biotechs have multiplied as gene and cell therapy has exploded — offering major new advances in the way diseases are treated, and sometimes cured.

So where are we headed from here? I journeyed out to San Francisco in September to discuss the answer to that question at Allogene’s open house. If the last 10 years have been an eye-opener, what does the next decade hold in store?

Patrick Mahaffy, Getty Images

Court green-lights Clo­vis case af­ter de­tail­ing ev­i­dence the board ‘ig­nored red flags’ on false safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta

Clovis investors have cleared a major hurdle in their long-running case against the board of directors, with a Delaware court making a rare finding that they had a strong enough case against the board to proceed with the action.

In a detailed ruling at the beginning of the month that’s been getting careful scrutiny at firms specializing in biotech and corporate governance, the Delaware Court of Chancery found that the attorneys for the investors had made a careful case that the board — a collection of experts that includes high-profile biotech entrepreneurs, a Harvard professor and well-known investigator as well as Clovis CEO Patrick Mahaffy — repeatedly ignored obvious warnings that Mahaffy’s executive crew was touting inflated, unconfirmed data for their big drug Roci. Serious safety issues were also reportedly overlooked while the company continued a fundraising campaign that brought in more than a half-billion dollars. And that leaves the board open to claims related to their role in the fiasco.

The bottom line:

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Bill Gates backs Gink­go Biowork­s' $350M raise to fu­el the buzzy syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy 'rev­o­lu­tion'

If you want to understand Ginkgo Bioworks, the name should suffice: Bioworks, a spin off “ironworks,” that old industrial linchpin devoted to leveraging scale as a wellspring for vast new industries capable of remaking society. Ginkgo wants to be the ironworks for the revolution it’s heralded with as much fanfare as they can, playing off of one of the buzziest technologies in biotech.

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UCB bags a ri­val to Soliris in $2.1B buy­out deal — but will an in­creas­ing­ly vig­i­lant FTC sign off?

UCB is buying out Ra Pharma $RARX, announcing an acquisition deal that rings up at $48 a share, or $2.1 billion net of cash, and puts them toe-to-toe with Alexion on a clinical showdown.

Ra shares closed at $22.70 on Wednesday.

There’s a small pipeline in play at Ra, but UCB is going for the lead drug — a C5 inhibitor called zilucoplan in Phase III for myasthenia gravis (MG) looking to play rival to Alexion’s Soliris. Soliris has the market advantage, though, with a much earlier approval in MG in late 2017 that UCB feels confident in challenging.

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A new play­er is tak­ing the field in a push for a he­mo­phil­ia A gene ther­a­py, and it’s a big one

BioMarin, the execs at Spark (and buyer-to-be Roche) as well as the Sangamo/Pfizer team have a new rival striding onto the hemophilia block. And it’s a big one.

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Stuck with a PhI­II gene ther­a­py fail­ure at 96 weeks, Gen­Sight prefers the up­beat as­sess­ment

Two years after treatment, the best thing that GenSight Biologics $SIGHT can say about their gene therapy for vision-destroying cases of Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy is that it’s just a bit better than a placebo — just maybe because one treatment can cover both eyes.

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George Scangos / Credit: Cornell University

ARCH, Soft­Bank-backed Vir Biotech­nol­o­gy un­der­whelms with $143 mil­lion IPO

George Scangos went back to Wall Street, and came back 700 million pennies short.

Scangos’ vaunted startup Vir Biotechnology raised $143 million in an IPO they hoped would earn $150 million. Shares were priced at $20, the low-end of the $20-$22 target.

Launched with backing from ARCH Venture’s Robert Nelsen, Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Vision Fund, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the infectious disease startup was one of a new wave of well-resourced biotechs that emerged with deep enough coffers to pursue a full R&D line rather than slowly build their case by picking off a single lead program.