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.

Jim Mellon [via YouTube]

Health­i­er, longer lifes­pans will be a re­al­i­ty soon­er than you think, Ju­ve­nes­cence promis­es as it clos­es $100M round

Earlier this year, an executive from Juvenescence-backed AgeX predicted the field of longevity will eventually “dwarf the dotcom boom.” Greg Bailey, the UK-based anti-aging biotech’s CEO, certainly hopes so.

On Monday, Juvenescence completed its $100 million series B round of financing. The company is backed by British billionaire Jim Mellon — who wrote his 400-page guide to investing in the field of longevity shortly after launching the company in 2017.  Bailey, who served as a board director for seven years at Medivation before Pfizer swallowed the biotech for $14 billion, is joined by Declan Doogan, an industry veteran with stints at Pfizer and Amarin.

John Hood [file photo]

UP­DATE: Cel­gene and the sci­en­tist who cham­pi­oned fe­dra­tinib's rise from Sanofi's R&D grave­yard win FDA OK

Six years after Sanofi gave it up for dead, the FDA has approved the myelofibrosis drug fedratinib, now owned by Celgene.

The drug will be sold as Inrebic, and will soon land in the portfolio at Bristol-Myers Squibb, which is finalizing a deal to acquire Celgene.

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UP­DAT­ED: AveX­is sci­en­tif­ic founder was axed — and No­var­tis names a new CSO in wake of an ethics scan­dal

Now at the center of a storm of controversy over its decision to keep its knowledge of manipulated data hidden from regulators during an FDA review, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has found a longtime veteran in the ranks to head the scientific work underway at AveXis, where the incident occurred. And the scientific founder has hit the exit.

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Ab­b­Vie gets its FDA OK for JAK in­hibitor upadac­i­tinib, but don’t look for this one to hit ex­ecs’ lofty ex­pec­ta­tions

Another big drug approval came through on Friday afternoon as the FDA OK’d AbbVie’s upadacitinib — an oral JAK1 inhibitor that is hitting the rheumatoid arthritis market with a black box warning of serious malignancies, infections and thrombosis reflecting fears associated with the class.

It will be sold as Rinvoq — at a wholesale price of $59,000 a year — and will likely soon face competition from a drug that AbbVie once controlled, and spurned. Reuters reports that a 4-week supply of Humira, by comparison, is $5,174, adding up to about $67,000 a year.

The top 10 fran­chise drugs in bio­phar­ma his­to­ry will earn a to­tal of $1.4T (tril­lion) by 2024 — what does that tell us?

Just in case you were looking for more evidence of just how important Amgen’s patent win on Enbrel is for the company and its investors, EvaluatePharma has come up with a forward-looking consensus estimate on what the list of top 10 drugs will look like in 2024.

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UP­DAT­ED: Sci­en­tist-CEO ac­cused of im­prop­er­ly us­ing con­fi­den­tial in­fo from uni­corn Alec­tor

The executive team at Alector $ALEC has a bone to pick with scientific co-founder Asa Abeliovich. Their latest quarterly rundown has this brief note buried inside:

On June 18, 2019, we initiated a confidential arbitration proceeding against Dr. Asa Abeliovich, our former consulting co-founder, related to alleged breaches of his consulting agreement and the improper use of our confidential information that he learned during the course of rendering services to us as our consulting Chief Scientific Officer/Chief Innovation Officer. We are in the early stage of this arbitration proceeding and are unable to assess or provide any assurances regarding its possible outcome.

There’s no explicit word in the filing on what kind of confidential info was involved, but the proceeding got started 2 days ahead of Abeliovich’s IPO.

Abeliovich, formerly a tenured associate professor at Columbia, is a top scientist in the field of neurodegeneration, which is where Alector is targeted. More recently, he’s also helped start up Prevail Therapeutics as the CEO, which raised $125 million in an IPO. And there he’s planning on working on new gene therapies that target genetically defined subpopulations of Parkinson’s disease. Followup programs target Gaucher disease, frontotemporal dementia and synucleinopathies.

But this time Abeliovich is the CEO rather than a founding scientist. And some of their pipeline overlaps with Alector’s.

Abeliovich and Prevail, though, aren’t taking this one lying down.

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Chi­na has be­come a CEO-lev­el pri­or­i­ty for multi­na­tion­al phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies: the trend and the im­pli­ca­tions

After a “hot” period of rapid growth between 2009 and 2012, and a relatively “cooler” period of slower growth from 2013 to 2015, China has once again become a top-of-mind priority for the CEOs of most large, multinational pharmaceutical companies.

At the International Pharma Forum, hosted in March in Beijing by the R&D Based Pharmaceutical Association Committee (RDPAC) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), no fewer than seven CEOs of major multinational pharmaceutical firms participated, including GSK, Eli Lilly, LEO Pharma, Merck KGaA, Pfizer, Sanofi and UCB. A few days earlier, the CEOs of several other large multinationals attended the China Development Forum, an annual business forum hosted by the research arm of China’s State Council. It’s hard to imagine any other country, except the US, having such drawing power at CEO level.

As dis­as­ter struck, Ab­b­Vie’s Rick Gon­za­lez swooped in on Al­ler­gan with an of­fer Brent Saun­ders couldn’t say no to

Early March was a no good, awful, terrible time for Allergan CEO Brent Saunders. His big lead drug had imploded in a Phase III disaster and activists were after his hide — or at least his chairman’s title — as the stock price continued a steady droop that had eviscerated share value for investors.

But it was a perfect time for AbbVie CEO Rick Gonzalez to pick up the phone and ask Saunders if he’d like to consider a “strategic” deal.

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CEO Pascal Soriot via Getty Images

As­traZeneca's jug­ger­naut PARP play­er Lyn­parza scoops up an­oth­er dom­i­nant win in PhI­II as the FDA adds a 'break­through' for Calquence

AstraZeneca’s oncology R&D group under José Baselga keeps churning out hits.

Wednesday morning the pharma giant and their partners at Merck parted the curtains on a successful readout for their Phase III PAOLA-1 study, demonstrating statistically significant improvement in progression-free survival for women with ovarian cancer in a first-line maintenance setting who added their PARP Lynparza to Avastin. This is their second late-stage success in ovarian cancer, which will help stave off rivals like GSK.

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