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

Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House (Photo: AFP)

Trump’s HHS claims ab­solute au­thor­i­ty over the FDA, clear­ing path to a vac­cine EUA

The top career staff at the FDA has vowed not to let politics overrule science when looking at vaccine data this fall. But Alex Azar, who happens to be their boss’s boss, apparently won’t even give them a chance to stand in the way.

In a new memorandum issued Tuesday last week, the HHS chief stripped the FDA and other health agencies under his purview of their rule making ability, asserting all such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times first obtained and reported the details of the September 15 bulletin.

Two wild weeks for Grail end in $8B Il­lu­mi­na buy­out

Grail’s whirlwind two weeks have ended in the wealthy arms of its former founder and benefactors.

Illumina has shelled out $8 billion to reacquire the closely-watched liquid biopsy startup they spun out just 5 years ago and sold off much of its shares just 3 years ago. The deal comes nearly two weeks after the well-heeled startup filed for a potentially massive IPO — one that was disrupted just a week later when Bloomberg reported that Illumina was in talks to buy their former spinout for up to $8 billion.

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Roche vaults to the front of the NL­RP3 clin­i­cal race, pay­ing $448M up­front to bag In­fla­zome

Roche is going all in on NLRP3.

The pharma giant is putting down $448 million (€380 million) upfront to snatch Novartis-backed Inflazome, which makes it a clinical player in the space overnight.

Dublin and Cambridge, UK-based Inflazome is the second NLRP3-focused biotech Roche has acquired in less than two years, and although no numbers were disclosed in the Jecure buyout, this is almost certainly a much larger deal.

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Frank Zhang (AP Images)

Rocked by cus­toms in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Leg­end's CFO takes over as CEO Frank Zhang placed un­der house ar­rest

When Frank Zhang stepped down from GenScript — the contract research group he’s run for 18 years — to take up the CEO post at its CAR-T focused spinout Legend Biotech, he assured analysts that he was in for the long haul.

Just 49 days later, though, he’s been forced to hand back the title.

In a dramatic turn of events, Legend disclosed that Zhang is under house arrest in China as part of a customs investigation involving GenScript. While he remains the chairman, CFO Ying Huang has been tapped to double as interim CEO.

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Israel Lowy (Regeneron)

#ES­MO20: 'As good as any PD-1 out there': Re­gen­eron flash­es PD-(L)1 lung can­cer da­ta to ri­val Mer­ck

Regeneron entered the PD-(L)1 game late, so they devised a two-pronged strategy to catch up with Big Pharma rivals: They would push it into cancers where PD-1s had yet been tested, and they would prove that it’s as powerful in the big indications as any other on the market.

They cleared a hurdle on the first goal Friday, showing a 31% response in patients with the rare skin cancer basal cell carcinoma. And with the data they’re rolling out Monday, Regeneron cancer chief Israel Lowy is ready to declare success on the second.

Sebastian Nijman (file photo)

Roche looks to ge­net­ic mod­i­fiers for new drug tar­gets, team­ing up with Dutch biotech in $375M deal

Roche is gambling on a new way of discovering drug targets and, ultimately, promising to infuse more than $375 million into a small biotech if all goes well.

A spinout of the Netherlands Cancer Institute and Oxford University, Scenic Biotech set out to pioneer a field that’s gaining some traction among top VCs in the US: to harness the natural protecting powers of genetic modifiers — specific genes that suppress a disease phenotype.

As­traZeneca pub­lish­es Covid-19 vac­cine PhI­II pro­to­cols in lock­step with Mod­er­na and Pfiz­er. How are they dif­fer­ent?

Following in the steps of Moderna and Pfizer, the other two American drugmakers currently in Phase III trials for their Covid-19 vaccines, AstraZeneca posted its own study protocols over the weekend. The move is the latest in a series of rare peeks behind the curtain, as such blueprints are typically shared once such trials are completed.

“Given the unprecedented global impact of the Coronavirus pandemic and the need for public information, AstraZeneca has published the detailed protocol and design of our AZD1222 clinical trial. As with most clinical development, protocols are not typically shared publicly due to the importance of maintaining confidentiality and integrity of trials. AstraZeneca continues to work with industry peers to ensure a consistent approach to sharing timely clinical trial information,” the company said in a statement.

Eli Lilly CSO Dan Skovronsky (file photo)

UP­DAT­ED: #ES­MO20: Eli Lil­ly shows off the da­ta for its Verzenio suc­cess. Was it worth $18 bil­lion?

The press release alone, devoid of any number except for the size of the trial, added nearly $20 billion to Eli Lilly’s market cap back in June. Now investors and oncologists will get to see if the data live up to the hype.

On Sunday at ESMO, Eli Lilly announced the full results for its Phase III MonarchE trial of Verzenio, showing that across over 5,000 women who had had HR+, HER2- breast cancer, the drug reduced the odds of recurrence by 25%. That meant 7.8% of the patients on the drug arm saw their cancers return within 2 years, compared with 11.3% on the placebo arm.

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Greg Friberg (File photo)

#ES­MO20: Am­gen team nails down sol­id ear­ly ev­i­dence of AMG 510’s po­ten­tial for NSCLC, un­lock­ing the door to a wave of KRAS pro­grams

The first time I sat down with Amgen’s Greg Friberg to talk about the pharma giant’s KRAS G12C program for sotorasib (AMG 510) at ASCO a little more than a year ago, there was high excitement about the first glimpse of efficacy from their Phase I study, with 5 of 10 evaluable non-small cell lung cancer patients demonstrating a response to the drug.

After decades of failure targeting KRAS, sotorasib offered the first positive look at a new approach that promised to open a door to a whole new approach by targeting a particular mutation to a big target that had remained “undruggable” for decades.

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