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

Mer­ck is tak­ing the ax to its US op­er­a­tions, cut­ting 500 jobs in its lat­est re­or­ga­ni­za­tion

Merck is cutting 500 jobs in its US sales and headquarters commercial teams in its latest effort to find new ways to streamline the operation.

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Alice Shaw, Lung Cancer Foundation of America

Top ALK ex­pert and can­cer drug re­searcher Al­ice Shaw bids adieu to acad­e­mia, hel­lo to No­var­tis

Jay Bradner has recruited a marquee oncology drug researcher into the ranks of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. Alice Shaw is jumping from prestigious posts intertwined through Mass General, Harvard and Dana-Farber to take the lead of NIBR’s translational clinical oncology group.

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Med­ical an­i­ma­tion: Mak­ing it eas­i­er for the site and the pa­tient to un­der­stand

Medical animation has in recent years become an increasingly important tool for conveying niche information to a varied audience, particularly to those audiences without expertise in the specialist area. Science programmes today, for example, have moved from the piece-to-camera of the university professor explaining how a complex disease mechanism works, to actually showing the viewer first-hand what it might look like to shrink ourselves down to the size of an ant’s foot, and travel inside the human body to witness these processes in action. Effectively communicating a complex disease pathophysiology, or the novel mechanism of action of a new drug, can be complex. This is especially difficult when the audience domain knowledge is limited or non-existent. Medical animation can help with this communication challenge in several ways.
Improved accessibility to visualisation
Visualisation is a core component of our ability to understand a concept. Ask 10 people to visualise an apple, and each will come up with a slightly different image, some apples smaller than others, some more round, some with bites taken. Acceptable, you say, we can move on to the next part of the story. Now ask 10 people to visualise how HIV’s capsid protein gets arranged into the hexamers and pentamers that form the viral capsid that holds HIV’s genetic material. This request may pose a challenge even to someone with some virology knowledge, and it is that inability to effectively visualise what is going on that holds us back from fully understanding the rest of the story. So how does medical animation help us to overcome this visualisation challenge?

Hal Barron, GSK's president of R&D and CSO, speaks to Endpoints News founder and editor John Carroll in London at Endpoints' #UKBIO19 summit on October 8, 2019

[Video] Cel­e­brat­ing tri­al fail­ures, chang­ing the cul­ture and al­ly­ing with Cal­i­for­nia dream­ers: R&D chief Hal Bar­ron talks about a new era at GSK

Last week I had a chance to sit down with Hal Barron at Endpoints’ #UKBIO19 summit to discuss his views on R&D at GSK, a topic that has been central to his life since he took the top research post close to 2 years ago. During the conversation, Barron talked about changing the culture at GSK, a move that involves several new approaches — one of which involves celebrating their setbacks as they shift resources to the most promising programs in the pipeline. Barron also discussed his new alliances in the Bay Area — including his collaboration pact with Lyell, which we covered here — frankly assesses the pluses and minuses of the UK drug development scene, and talks about his plans for making GSK a much more effective drug developer.

This is one discussion you won’t want to miss. Insider and Enterprise subscribers can log-in to watch the video.

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Flu Virus (Source: CDC)

FDA ex­pands Xofluza ap­proval as Roche strug­gles to catch loom­ing flu mar­ket

As a potentially powerful flu season looms, so does a big test for Roche and its new flu drug, Xofluza. The Swiss giant just got a small boost in advance of that test as the FDA expanded Xofluza’s indication to include patients at high risk of developing flu-related complications.

Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil) was approved last October in the US, the first landmark flu drug approval in 20 years and a much-needed green light for a company that had watched its leading flu drug Tamiflu get eaten alive by generics. Like its predecessor, the pill offered a reduction in flu symptoms but not a cure.

EMA backs sev­en ther­a­pies, in­clud­ing Mer­ck­'s Ebo­la vac­cine

The first-ever Ebola vaccine is on the precipice of approval after the European Medicine’s Agency (EMA) backed the Merck product in this week’s roster of recommendations.

The drugmaker $MRK began developing the vaccine, christened Ervebo, during the West African outbreak that occurred between 2014 and 2016, killing more than 11,000.

The current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has shown case fatality rates of approximately 67%, the agency estimated. Earlier this year, the WHO declared the outbreak — which so far has infected more than 3,000 people — a public health emergency of international concern.

Ronald Herb­st fol­lows Med­Im­mune ex­o­dus to Pyx­is CSO post; Jeff God­dard to suc­ceed CEO of AIT Bio­science

→ The outflow of top execs from MedImmune continues to fill the leadership ranks of smaller biotechs. The latest to take off is Ronald Herbst, the head of oncology research, who’s assuming the CSO post at Pyxis Oncology.  

Herbst was part of the old MedImmune organization AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot restructured earlier this year, reorganizing the company and eliminating the storied subsidiary as a separate organization.

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UP­DAT­ED: J&J's Xarel­to, Amar­in's Vas­cepa are cost-ef­fec­tive, not bud­get friend­ly — ICER

ICER, an increasingly influential cost-effectiveness watchdog in the United States, has concluded in its review of treatments for cardiovascular disease that while the cost of J&J’s Xarelto and Amarin’s Vascepa meet its benchmark for value pricing — the two treatments will not likely treat as many patients as hoped without surpassing the annual budget threshold calculated by ICER for each therapy.

Mi­rati preps its first look at their KRAS G12C con­tender, and they have to clear a high bar for suc­cess

If you’re a big KRAS G12C fan, mark your calendars for October 28 at 4:20 pm EDT.

That’s when Mirati $MRTX will unveil its first peek at the early clinical data available on MRTX849 in presentations at the AACR-NCI-EORTC International Conference on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics in Boston.

Mirati has been experiencing the full effect of a rival’s initial success at targeting the G12C pocket found on KRAS, offering the biotech some support on the concept they’re after — and biotech fans a race to the top. Amgen made a big splash with its first positive snapshot on lung cancer, but deflated sky-high expectations as it proved harder to find similar benefits in other types of cancers.

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