Nek­tar wants every­one to stay calm as they car­ry on with NK­TR-214, but #AS­CO18 spurs a stam­pede

CHICA­GO — Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb $BMY has gone all in on Nek­tar’s $NK­TR ap­proach to amp­ing up their check­point strat­e­gy, part­ner­ing on NK­TR-214. But in­stead of tak­ing a bow at #AS­CO18 on pos­i­tive da­ta, re­searchers spent the week­end ex­plain­ing why their lat­est da­ta read­out from a small study shouldn’t be cause for pan­ic.

It’s not what they were look­ing for, to put it mild­ly.

Mary Tagli­a­fer­ri

Un­like most of the more close­ly-watched pro­grams here at AS­CO, the re­searchers in­volved nev­er of­fered a pre­view of the da­ta that came out Sat­ur­day evening. And that was a se­ri­ous mis­step, par­tic­u­lar­ly as the re­porters cov­er­ing this ses­sion strug­gled to fig­ure out what was be­ing re­port­ed — and what it meant.

As it hap­pens, in­ves­ti­ga­tors ex­e­cut­ed a two-stage tri­al process, sign­ing up a small group of pa­tients to test the drug in dif­fer­ent can­cer types, then mov­ing on to the next stage with a new group of re­cruits. Do­ing that, says Mary Tagli­a­fer­ri, the chief med­ical of­fi­cer at Nek­tar, meshed well with their strat­e­gy for jump­ing in­to late-stage stud­ies as they com­mu­ni­cat­ed with reg­u­la­tors.

“The goal,” she tells me, “was al­ways to as­sess mov­ing very quick­ly in­to Phase III.”

In­vestors, though, weren’t hap­py with the way this all came down, and they bolt­ed when the mar­ket opened, with Nek­tar’s stock plung­ing a sting­ing 32% — ex­act­ly the kind of rout that Bris­tol-My­ers (down 1.6%) doesn’t need right now as it tries to re­store con­fi­dence in its pipeline. And it kept get­ting worse lat­er in the day, with shares down 42%.

Here’s what Nek­tar has found so far.

In their melanoma project, re­searchers saw that 11 of 13 pa­tients treat­ed with a com­bi­na­tion of Op­di­vo and NK­TR-214 re­spond­ed in round 1 — which is out­stand­ing. But, when they added 15 more pa­tients, they on­ly boost­ed their re­sponse rate by 3 pa­tients. And 3 out of 15 is not out­stand­ing.

In kid­ney can­cer, the step one re­sponse rate of 64% was fol­lowed up with an over­all step 2 rate of 46%.

In­vestors hate to see a falling re­sponse rate, for any rea­son, as it in­di­cates a prob­lem that can se­ri­ous­ly af­fect a can­cer drug’s longterm fi­nan­cial suc­cess.

Twit­ter’s day-trad­ing crew picked it up from there, with all sorts of #AS­CO18 chat­ter about a tri­al dis­as­ter in the mak­ing. And as of­ten hap­pens, Twit­ter is not a great source of re­al-time in­for­ma­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly when the com­pa­nies failed to ex­plain what the num­bers meant with an­a­lysts.

In the fol­lowup dis­cus­sion, though, Tagli­a­fer­ri of­fered the ra­tio­nale that it’s ear­ly days for the sec­ond batch­es of pa­tients and they ex­pect to see more re­spons­es with time. And they have rea­son to be­lieve that, af­ter track­ing a 46% ORR in RCC at SITC that has now grown to 71% at AS­CO.

“You’ll see the ORR go­ing up,” says Tagli­a­fer­ri, as they have a chance to col­lect mul­ti­ple scans on the sec­ond-stage pa­tients. “It s a lit­tle frus­trat­ing that peo­ple aren’t un­der­stand­ing that.”

Al­so im­por­tant, they say, is clear ev­i­dence that the com­bi­na­tion of NK­TR-214 is do­ing what they re­al­ly want­ed: Spark­ing re­spons­es in PD-L1 neg­a­tive tu­mors where Op­di­vo is not suc­cess­ful. If that all plays out in the am­bi­tious piv­otal pro­gram now un­der­way, it will eas­i­ly jus­ti­fy Bris­tol-My­ers’ record $3.6 bil­lion wa­ger.

If not….

In melanoma, re­searchers saw 5 out of 11 PD-L1 neg­a­tive pa­tients re­spond; in kid­ney can­cer it was 9 out of 17, or 53%. Those num­bers are fine.

Right now, though, they’ve cre­at­ed an at­mos­phere of doubt that will make every turn of da­ta a cat­a­lyst for the gam­blers now lin­ing up their bets for and against the com­bi­na­tion. That will ei­ther help or hurt these com­pa­nies, which are now bet­ting heav­i­ly that step 2 will ul­ti­mate­ly play out in their fa­vor.

We’ll find out more at the next SITC con­fer­ence in No­vem­ber, Tagli­a­fer­ri adds, with ab­stracts due in Au­gust.

Nick Galakatos, Blackstone global head of life sciences

Nick Galakatos and the Black­stone team now have a record $4.6B to in­vest in bio­phar­ma, with a big fo­cus on push­ing com­pa­nies over the top

Nick Galakatos and his team at Blackstone Life Sciences have seen their biggest opportunities swell up in mostly established players who don’t have all the money they need to accomplish everything on the to-do list. And right now, with the industry booming, that’s a long list with some hefty needs.

The Blackstone team has neatly tied up the largest private fund ever raised in life sciences for making big dreams come true in biopharma. Late Thursday, Blackstone put out word that they had closed their highly anticipated fund with the projected $4.6 billion all in.

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UP­DAT­ED: Bio­gen shares spike as ex­ecs com­plete a de­layed pitch for their con­tro­ver­sial Alzheimer's drug — the next move be­longs to the FDA

Biogen is stepping out onto the high wire today, reporting that the team working on the controversial Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab has now completed their submission to the FDA. And they want the agency to bless it with a priority review that would cut the agency’s decision-making time to a mere 6 months.

The news drove a 10% spike in Biogen’s stock $BIIB ahead of the bell.

Part of that spike can be attributed to a relief rally. Biogen execs rattled backers and a host of analysts earlier in the year when they unexpectedly delayed their filing to the third quarter. That delay provoked all manner of speculation after CEO Michel Vounatsos and R&D chief Al Sandrock failed to persuade influential observers that the pandemic and other factors had slowed the timeline for filing. Actually making the pitch at least satisfies skeptics that the FDA was not likely pushing back as Biogen was pushing in. From the start, Biogen execs claimed that they were doing everything in cooperation with the FDA, saying that regulators had signaled their interest in reviewing the submission.

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Gilead boasts of pos­i­tive remde­sivir da­ta on mor­tal­i­ty — but their analy­sis pro­vokes the skep­tics

Gilead is surging again off data that suggest its antiviral remdesivir might improve survival.

The new data come from an analysis Gilead conducted comparing the death rate and recovery time of patients in one of its remdesivir trials to a group of 800 patients “with similar baseline characteristics and disease severity” who received only standard-of-care around the same time. The result, they said, suggested that patients who received remdesivir had a 62% better chance at surviving than those who did not.

Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer speaks at a meeting with President Donald Trump, members of the Coronavirus Task Force, and pharmaceutical executives in the Cabinet Room of the White House (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

OWS shifts spot­light to drugs to fight Covid-19, hand­ing Re­gen­eron $450M to be­gin large scale man­u­fac­tur­ing in the US

The US government is on a spending spree. And after committing billions to vaccines defense operations are now doling out more of the big bucks through Operation Warp Speed to back a rapid flip of a drug into the market to stop Covid-19 from ravaging patients — possibly inside of 2 months.

The beneficiary this morning is Regeneron, the big biotech engaged in a frenzied race to develop an antibody cocktail called REGN-COV2 that just started a late-stage program to prove its worth in fighting the virus. BARDA and the Department of Defense are awarding Regeneron a $450 million contract to cover bulk delivery of the cocktail starting as early as late summer, with money added for fill/finish and storage activities.

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Hal Barron, GSK

Win or lose on the mar­ket­ing OK, the FDA just gunned down GSK’s bright hopes for their BC­MA ther­a­py

The FDA’s ODAC — the Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee — has a well-known bias in favor of adding new cancer drugs to the market, even if efficacy is at best marginal and serious safety issues demand careful management.

Doctors want as many arrows in their quiver as they can get. And when patients are dying after failing multiple drugs, why not give it a go one more time?

GlaxoSmithKline, though, is about to test out how their new BCMA antibody drug conjugate belantamab mafodotin can do after being mauled in an in-house FDA review, ahead of the Tuesday expert panel discussion. Even if the agency goes ahead with an expected green light, this drug will likely be constrained to a small niche — icing any plans they may have for making waves in oncology anytime soon.

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Covid-19 roundup: BioN­Tech go­ing head-to-head with Mod­er­na as PhI­II mR­NA launch looms; Tri­al on Shin­zo Abe’s once-fa­vorite an­tivi­ral is in­con­clu­sive

It’s a race to the Phase III finish line now for the 2 leading mRNA vaccines in the pipeline for Covid-19.

BioNTech chief Ugur Sahin told the Wall Street Journal that his company will start Phase III testing of their vaccine later this month, setting them up to lateral the data to regulators before the end of this year.

That puts them essentially on the exact same schedule as Moderna is dedicated to. The Massachusetts rival to BioNTech also expects to launch Phase III this month. Lots of rumors have circulated about delays and conflict among the scientists advancing the Moderna jab, but the biotech has consistently stuck to its plan to start a late-stage pivotal this month.

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Andrew Kruegel, Kures president and co-founder (Columbia Tech Ventures via Vimeo)

Af­ter psilo­cy­bin and ke­t­a­mine, a new biotech comes along de­vel­op­ing a drug Scott Got­tlieb fought

Andrew Kruegel was six years into his chemistry work at Columbia University, when, one day in August 2016, he learned he might have only 30 days before the government made him destroy his research.

Kruegel had been studying kratom, a leaf long used in Southeast Asia as a stimulant or for pain. It had opioid-like properties, he found, but seemed to offer pain relief without the addictive potential or respiratory side effects of traditional opioids — a riddle that might help illuminate how human opioid receptors work.

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The home run count: The $100M+ mega-round boom in biotech in­spired a $7.3B feed­ing fren­zy — so far this year

Over the last 6 months there’s been a blizzard of money piling up drifts of the green stuff through the biotech landscape. And the forecast calls for more cash windfalls ahead.

Even as a global pandemic has killed more than half a million people, blighted economies and divided nations over the proper response, it’s also helped ignite an unprecedented burst of big-time investing. And not just in Covid-19 deals, as we’ve looked at before.

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Atul Deshpande, Harbour BioMed chief strategy officer & head, US operations (Harbour BioMed)

An­oth­er biotech IPO set-up? Multi­na­tion­al biotech leaps from round to round, scoop­ing up cash at a blis­ter­ing pace

A short four months after announcing a $75 million haul in Series B+ fundraising, the multinational biotech Harbour BioMed pulled in another round of investments and eclipsed the nine-digit mark in the process.

Harbour completed its Series C financing, the company announced Thursday morning, raising $102.8 million and bringing its total investment sum to over $300 million since its founding in late 2016. The biotech plans to use the money to transition early-stage candidates from the discovery phase, fund candidates already in the clinic, and prep late-stage candidates for commercialization.

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