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.

RWE chal­lenges for to­day's bio­phar­ma

The rapid development of technology — and the resulting avalanche of data — are catalysts for significant change in the biopharmaceutical industry. This translates into urgent pressures for today’s biopharma, including a need to quickly and affordably develop products with proven therapeutic efficacy and value. This urgency is expedited by the growth of value-based contracting, where access to reimbursement and profit depends on these abilities.

UP­DAT­ED: In a stun­ning turn­around, Bio­gen says that ad­u­canum­ab does work for Alzheimer's — but da­ta min­ing in­cites con­tro­ver­sy and ques­tions

Biogen has confounded the biotech world one more time.

In a stunning about-face, the company and its partners at Eisai say that a new analysis of a larger dataset on aducanumab has restored its faith in the drug as a game-changer for Alzheimer’s and, after talking it over with the FDA, they’ll now be filing for an approval of a drug that had been given up for dead.

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As shares suf­fer from a lin­ger­ing slump, a bruised Alk­er­mes slash­es 160 jobs in R&D re­struc­tur­ing

With its share price in a deep slump after suffering through a regulatory debacle over their depression drug ALKS 5461, Alkermes CEO Richard Pops is taking the ax to its R&D organization in a restructuring aimed at cutting costs ahead of its next attempt at a rollout in a tough field.

Richard Pops, Endpoints via Youtube

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Acor­da's Ron Co­hen brings the ax back out as new drug sales on­ly trick­le in while cash cow is led to the slaugh­ter

With its new drug earning meager sums and its one-time cash cow reduced to a bony shadow of its former self, Acorda Therapeutics today is rolling out a new restructuring aimed at slashing the staff and cutting costs to get through the hard times ahead.

The biotech is chopping a quarter of its staff today, carving back R&D as well as SG&A expenses. And CEO Ron Cohen is cutting deep.

Under the new austerity budget, Acorda’s R&D expenses for the full year 2019 are expected to be $55 – $60 million, reduced from $70 – $80 million. SG&A expenses for the full year 2019 are expected to be $185 – $190 million, reduced from $200 – $210 million. R&D expenses for the full year 2020 are expected to be $20 – $25 million and SG&A
expenses for the full year 2020 are expected to be $160 – $165 million.

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RAPT Ther­a­peu­tics re­turns to Wall Street to re­vive IPO bid

On May 24, FLX Bio, a small cancer and inflammation biotech with backing from GV, changed its name to RAPT Therapeutics and filed confidentially for an IPO. On July 5th, they filed to raise up to $86 million. On July 22, they announced the IPO with a $75 million goal.  And on August 1, they abruptly and without explanation called it all off.

Now, without explanation, they’re reviving the bid, filing again for a $75 million IPO, this time with a new bookrunner and a new drug candidate in the clinic. The terms will be the same: 5 million shares at $14-$16 per share. It would give them a diluted market value of $351 million.

EY vet set to re­place re­tir­ing Am­gen CFO Meline

Ahead of its third-quarter results next week, Amgen on Tuesday disclosed the planned retirement of David Meline, who has served as the company’s chief financial officer since 2014.

Meline will be replaced by Ernst & Young vet, Peter Griffith, as CFO come January 1, 2020 — but until then Griffith will serve as executive vice president, finance.

“Over the last 5 years at Amgen, Meline instituted many major changes that led to operational efficiencies and margin expansion while successfully returning cash to shareholders. Now that Amgen is on solid footing, it was a good time to step away,” Cowen’s Yaron Werber wrote in a note. “We do not anticipate any major changes to strategy or operations immediately due to this transition as Amgen is on solid footing.”

Eli Lil­ly’s USA, di­a­betes chief En­rique Con­ter­no is head­ing out af­ter 27 years, and he’s be­ing re­placed by a com­pa­ny in­sid­er

Close to 3 years after Eli Lilly CEO Dave Ricks added the title of president of the US operations to Enrique Conterno’s resume, which included his helmsmanship of the diabetes franchise, the Peruvian born exec is set to retire after a 27-year run at the pharma giant.

Lilly put out the news just as it was posting Q3 results, with a mix of upbeat and downbeat results in the latest set of numbers from Lilly.
Conterno — a grizzled, deeply experienced and sometimes gruff veteran of the pharma world — was a high-profile figure at Lilly, stepping up to expanded duties as the company was forced to deal with intense pricing pressure on the diabetes side of the business. He had replaced outgoing US president Alex Azar, who later popped up as head of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration.
As head of the diabetes unit, Conterno had to deal with an extraordinarily competitive field as payers demanded bigger discounts. Trulicity’s success helped generate new revenue for the company, but Q3’s miss on revenue had a lot to do with the need for discounting the drug ahead of Novo Nordisk’s rival therapy, Rybelsus, which was priced on the wholesale level at an almost identical rate.

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Vas Narasimhan. Getty Images

UP­DAT­ED: Failed PhI­II fe­vip­iprant tri­als pour more cold wa­ter on No­var­tis' block­buster R&D en­gine — and briefly spread the chill to a high-pro­file biotech

Back in July, during an investor call where Novartis execs ran through an upbeat assessment of their Q2 performance, CEO Vas Narasimhan and development chief John Tsai were pressed to predict which of the two looming Phase III readouts — involving cardio drug Entresto and asthma therapy fevipiprant, respectively — had a higher likelihood of success. Tsai gave the PARAGON-HF study with Entresto minimally better odds, but Narasimhan emphasized that their strategy of giving fevipiprant to more severe patients gave them confidence.

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No­var­tis hands off $80M in cash to part­ner up with a top biotech play­er in the fi­bro­sis sec­tor

Never underestimate the power of a good showing at a scientific conference.
In a presentation late last year, the researchers at Pliant Therapeutics launched a series of discussions about the preclinical data they were pulling together around their work on their small-molecule integrin inhibitor aimed at transforming growth factor beta, or TGF-β, a key pathway involved in fibrosis.
And they got some serious attention for the work.
“We got interest from pharma partners and at the end Novartis basically made it,” says Pliant CEO Bernard Coulie.