The I/O 2.0-com­bo tech race is on: Mer­ck bags on­colyt­ics play­er Vi­r­a­lyt­ics in $394M buy­out

Last spring the small Aus­tralian biotech Vi­r­a­lyt­ics made a big splash at the an­nu­al AACR meet­ing, turn­ing up in the show­case spot with an in­trigu­ing snap­shot of the pos­i­tive da­ta their on­colyt­ics ther­a­py Ca­vatak was reg­is­ter­ing in the clin­ic.

This morn­ing Mer­ck $MRK — al­ready loose­ly al­lied in a sup­ply deal with Vi­r­a­lyt­ics for their PD-1 star Keytru­da — fol­lowed up by gob­bling the whole com­pa­ny, bag­ging the biotech in a $394 mil­lion buy­out as the lead­ers in the check­point race branch out with new deals for com­bi­na­tion ap­proach­es.

Roy Baynes

Mer­ck is pay­ing a big pre­mi­um — 160% — for Vi­r­a­lyt­ics (ASX: VLA, OTC: VRA­CY), but their AUD 1.75 cash price per share rep­re­sents a mod­est cost in a block­buster busi­ness like the PD-1/L1 field which Mer­ck and Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb dom­i­nate.

It’s al­so no co­in­ci­dence that Mer­ck’s deal is com­ing just days af­ter Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb $BMY bought in­to Nek­tar’s on­col­o­gy pro­gram with a record up­front. With 5 PD-1/L1 drugs pro­lif­er­at­ing around the world, and more on the way, the fo­cus is on new com­bi­na­tions that work to­geth­er to de­feat can­cer bet­ter than the monother­a­pies. And the lead­ers clear­ly want a stake — or full own­er­ship — in the next big thing in the clin­ic.

Ever­core ISI an­a­lyst Umer Raf­fat was one of the first an­a­lysts out with a note Wednes­day, call­ing the deal a nice “tuck-in” and call­ing out one as­pect of the tech that like­ly helped trig­ger the deal:

Out­side of ear­ly ORR be­ing seen in this tri­al of  lung and blad­der can­cer pts, the most in­trigu­ing sig­nal pre­vi­ous­ly emerg­ing out of this tri­al was the up­reg­u­la­tion of PDL1 ex­pres­sion seen with­in a cou­ple of wks among pts with low PDL1 ex­pres­sion at base­line:

Roger Perl­mut­ter

Like the fast-grow­ing PD-1/L1 field, new re­search in­di­cates that a large ros­ter of on­colyt­ic com­pa­nies have been mul­ti­ply­ing, fol­low­ing new ap­proach­es that promise to sur­pass the pi­o­neer in the field: Am­gen’s T-Vec, which Mer­ck R&D chief Roger Perl­mut­ter bought back in 2011 in a deal that to­taled about a bil­lion dol­lars, when he was run­ning R&D at Am­gen.

The ba­sic ap­proach is the same. These on­colyt­ic virus­es are de­signed to in­fect can­cer cells and ex­plode them, cre­at­ing a tar­get rich en­vi­ron­ment for the im­mune sys­tem’s sen­tinel T cells. But new ap­proach­es promise to amp up the im­pact over Am­gen’s pi­o­neer. And there’s gen­er­al con­sen­sus that it’s a good match for a check­point like Keytru­da.

In Vi­r­a­lyt­ics’ case, re­searchers are work­ing with a for­mu­la­tion of the com­mon cold Cox­sack­ievirus Type A21.

Here’s what we found at the show­case round at AACR last April:

In­ject­ed di­rect­ly in­to le­sions, re­searchers tracked an over­all re­sponse rate of 50%, with 4 pa­tients reg­is­ter­ing a com­plete re­sponse and 7 pa­tients ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a par­tial re­sponse. The me­di­an du­ra­tion of re­sponse was not yet reached, “with a num­ber of re­spons­es greater than six months and sev­er­al still on­go­ing” — a sig­nal of po­ten­tial dura­bil­i­ty.

Among 11 pa­tients who had dis­ease pro­gres­sion fol­low­ing ear­li­er treat­ment with an im­mune check­point in­hibitor, 4 had a re­sponse. The oth­er 7 re­spon­ders had not been treat­ed ear­li­er with a check­point.

“The pre­lim­i­nary over­all re­sponse rate of 50% is very pos­i­tive be­cause pre­vi­ous re­ports in­di­cate an 11% over­all re­sponse rate for ip­il­i­mum­ab (Bris­tol-My­ers’ Yer­voy) alone and an ap­prox­i­mate­ly 28% over­all re­sponse rate for CVA21 alone,” not­ed pri­ma­ry in­ves­ti­ga­tor Bren­dan Cur­tis at the time.

The rel­a­tive­ly low cost for Vi­r­a­lyt­ics may un­der­score the sheer vol­ume of on­colyt­ic virus­es now in de­vel­op­ment. A re­cent study from the Can­cer Re­search In­sti­tute found 69 in clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment and an­oth­er 95 in a pre­clin­i­cal pro­gram. The Aus­tralian biotech is now in Phase I and II stud­ies, but the field ap­pears poised to ex­plode with piv­otal da­ta in the com­ing year or two.

“Vi­r­a­lyt­ics’s ap­proach of en­gag­ing the in­nate im­mune sys­tem to tar­get and kill can­cer cells com­ple­ments our im­muno-on­col­o­gy strat­e­gy, which is fo­cused on the rapid ad­vance­ment of in­no­v­a­tive monother­a­py ap­proach­es and syn­er­gis­tic com­bi­na­tions to help the broad­est range of can­cer pa­tients,” said Roy Baynes, se­nior vice pres­i­dent and head of glob­al clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, chief med­ical of­fi­cer, Mer­ck Re­search Lab­o­ra­to­ries. “We are ea­ger to fur­ther build on Vi­r­a­lyt­ics’s sci­ence as we con­tin­ue our ef­forts to har­ness the im­mune sys­tem to im­prove long-term dis­ease con­trol and sur­vival out­comes for peo­ple with can­cer.”


Im­age: Mer­ck build­ing in Branch­burg, NJ. Shut­ter­stock

Lessons for biotech and phar­ma from a doc­tor who chased his own cure

After being struck by a rare disease as a healthy third year medical student, David Fajgenbaum began an arduous journey chasing his own cure. Amidst the hustle of this year’s JP Morgan conference, the digital trials platform Medable partnered with Endpoints Studio to share Dr. Fajgenbaum’s story with the drug development industry.

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation between Medable CEO Dr. Michelle Longmire and Dr. Fajgenbaum, and it is full of lessons for biotech executives charged with bringing the next generation of medicines to patients.

James Collins, Broad Institute via Youtube

UP­DAT­ED: A space odyssey for new an­tibi­otics: MIT's ma­chine learn­ing ap­proach

Drug development is complex, expensive and comes with lousy odds of success — but in most cases, if you make it across the finish line brandishing a product with an edge (and play your cards right) it can be a lucrative endeavor.

As it stands, the antibiotic market is cursed — it harbors the stink of multiple bankruptcies, a dearth of innovation, and is consequently barely whetting the voracious appetites of big pharma or venture capitalists. Enter artificial intelligence — the biopharma industry’s cure-all for the pesky process of making a therapeutic, including data mining, drug discovery, optimal drug delivery, and addressable patient population.

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Jim Scholefield via PR Newswire

Mer­ck los­es its chief dig­i­tal of­fi­cer, spot­light­ing tal­ent hunt for the hottest ti­tle in Big Phar­ma

Over the last few years we’ve seen the chief digital officer title become one of the hottest commodities in Big Pharma as global organizations hunt the best talent to sharpen the cutting edge of their tech platforms.

But Merck just discovered how hard it may be to keep them focused on pharma.

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Gilead los­es two more patent chal­lenges on HIV pill, set­ting up court­room fight in Delaware

Gilead sustained two more losses in their efforts to rid themselves of an activist-backed patent lawsuit from the US government over a best-selling HIV pill.

Urged on by activists seeking to divert a portion of Gilead’s revenue to clinics and prevention programs, the Department of Health and Human Services made a claim to some of the patents for the best-selling HIV prevention drug, Truvada, also known as PrEP. Gilead responded by arguing in court that HHS’s patents were invalid.

Today, the US Patent and Trademark Office ruled that Gilead was likely to lose the last two of those challenges as well. The USPTO ruled against Gilead on the first two patents earlier this month.

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Kathy High (file photo)

Gene ther­a­py pi­o­neer Kathy High has left Spark af­ter com­plet­ing $4.3B union with Roche

Kathy High dedicated the past seven years of her life shepherding experimental gene therapies she’s developed at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia toward the market as president and head of R&D at Spark Therapeutics. Now that the biotech startup is fully absorbed into Roche — with an FDA approval, a $4.3 billion buyout and a promising hemophilia program to boast — she’s ready to move on.

Roche confirmed her departure with Endpoints News and noted “she will take some well-deserved time off and then will begin a new chapter in a sabbatical at a university.”

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Tal Zaks (Moderna via YouTube)

For two decades, a new vac­cine tech­nol­o­gy has been slow­ly ap­proach­ing prime time. Now, can it stop a pan­dem­ic?

Two months before the outbreak, Moderna CMO Tal Zaks traveled from Cambridge, MA to Washington DC to meet with Anthony Fauci and the leaders of the National Institutes of Health.

For two years, Moderna had worked closely with NIH researchers to build a new kind of vaccine for MERS, one of the deadliest new viruses to emerge in the 21st century. The program was one test for a new technology designed to be faster, cheaper and more precise than the ways vaccines had been made for over a century. They had gathered evidence the technology could work in principle, and Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a longtime advocate for better epidemic preparedness, wanted to see if it, along with a couple of other approaches, could work in a worst-case scenario: A pandemic.

“[We were] trying to find a test case for how to demonstrate if our technology could rapidly prepare,” Zaks told Endpoints News.

Zaks and Fauci, of course, wouldn’t have to wait to develop a new test. By year’s end, an outbreak in China would short circuit the need for one and throw them into 24/7 work on a real-world emergency. They also weren’t the only ones with new technology who saw a chance to help in a crisis.

An ocean away, Lidia Oostvogels was still on vacation and relaxing at her mother’s house in Belgium when her Facebook started changing. It was days after Christmas and on most people’s feeds, the news that China had reported a novel virus to the World Health Organization blurred into the stream of holiday sweaters and fir trees. But on Oostvogels’s feed, full of vaccine researchers and virus experts, speculation boiled: There was a virus in China, something contained to the country, but “exotic,” “weird,” and maybe having to do with animals. Maybe a coronavirus.

Lidia Oostvogels

“I was immediately thinking like, ‘Hey, this is something that if needed, we can play a role,'” Oostvogels told Endpoints.

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Bank­rupt an­tibi­otics mak­er Ar­a­digm turns to old part­ner/in­vestor for fi­nal $3M fire sale

Grifols once paid Aradigm $26 million for a stake in its inhaled antibiotics. But with Aradigm now in bankruptcy, the Spanish drugmaker is dishing out a final $3.2 million to buy it all.

The fire sale — which comes one year after Aradigm filed for Chapter 11 following a regulatory trifecta for disaster — will see Grifols obtain assets and IP to Apulmiq (formerly Pulmaquin and Linhaliq in Europe), Lipoquin and free ciprofloxacin. In addition to waiving its claims in the bankruptcy case, Grifols also agreed to milestone payments up to $3 million more upon any regulatory approvals.

DB­V's peanut pre­ven­tion patch ap­proach­es key stage of ap­proval process

Almost a year and a half after DBV Technologies pulled its peanut allergy immunotherapy patch from FDA review, the biotech will get their day in court. The FDA has scheduled an advisory committee hearing for May 15.

In the two-horse race to develop the first immunotherapy for peanut allergy, DBV had the early lead, filing an NDA for their patch in 2018. But on December 20 of that year, the company withdrew their application after, they said, meeting with regulators and determining they had not submitted “sufficient detail regarding data on manufacturing procedures and quality controls.” Aimmune filed their BLA 3 days later and won approval as the first immunotherapy for peanuts this month.

An­to­nio Gual­ber­to starts post-Ku­ra ca­reer at Ei­sai sub­sidiary H3; eF­FEC­TOR co-founder Siegfried Re­ich jumps to Turn­ing Point

→ Days after Kura Oncology announced the departure of co-founder Antonio Gualberto, we finally know where he wound up. Eisai subsidiary H3 Biomedicine has recruited him as CMO to finding the right patients to its four clinical-stage small molecule assets hitting genomic drivers of cancer.

“Challenges of these and many other precision medicine approaches are on one hand technical — a need for robust and precise diagnostics — and on the other hand derived by the challenge to alter standard clinical practice in settings where patient screening, e.g. by tumor DNA sequencing, is not standard practice,” he wrote to Endpoints News on his way back to Boston from Eisai’s Tokyo offices. “Only compelling clinical activity can drive clinicians and pathologists to modify standard clinical practice.”