Neoanti­gens beck­on Mer­ck in­to a $200M can­cer col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mod­er­na

Now that Gale­na has added fresh ev­i­dence that first-gen can­cer vac­cines make for a poor R&D pro­gram, Mer­ck is bet­ting $200 mil­lion up­front that the next-gen neoanti­gen ap­proach to per­son­al­ized can­cer vac­cines can suc­ceed where all else has failed.

Mer­ck is ty­ing up with the mR­NA spe­cial­ists at Cam­bridge, MA-based Mod­er­na, which has inked a long line­up of mar­quee part­ner­ships. The big idea here is that each per­son’s can­cer cells present unique “neoanti­gens” that can be used to tai­lor a can­cer vac­cine for each pa­tient.

That’s a rad­i­cal idea that has gained con­sid­er­able steam in re­cent months, with Grit­stone and Neon Ther­a­peu­tics — paired now with Bris­tol-My­ers on Op­di­vo — round­ing up sig­nif­i­cant ven­ture cash. Biotech bil­lion­aire Patrick Soon-Sh­iong has al­so jumped in­to the game, in­clud­ing it in its grow­ing slate of can­cer R&D work in a group of star­tups.

Mod­er­na says it has al­ready set up a man­u­fac­tur­ing sys­tem that can be used to cre­ate these per­son­al­ized vac­cines in a mat­ter of weeks. And Mer­ck will use the part­ner­ship to ad­vance new com­bi­na­tion ther­a­pies that in­clude its check­point in­hibitor Keytru­da.

The way the deal works, Mod­er­na notes in its state­ment, is that Mer­ck can step up af­ter it sees some ev­i­dence in hu­mans that the tech is work­ing as planned. Af­ter hu­man proof-of-con­cept, if Mer­ck wants to opt in they can pay a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone and then both com­pa­nies can share the cost on Phase III and com­mer­cial­iza­tions, prof­it­ing equal­ly.

Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel says they can jump in­to the clin­ic next year.

The deal marks an­oth­er rare pact by Mer­ck R&D chief Roger Perl­mut­ter, who’s been care­ful­ly

Roger Perl­mut­ter, Pres­i­dent, Mer­ck Re­search Lab­o­ra­to­ries

fo­cused on mak­ing Keytru­da a foun­da­tion fran­chise that can sus­tain the com­pa­ny for years to come. While Mer­ck has been a cou­ple of steps be­hind Bris­tol-My­ers in gain­ing mar­ket share, Perl­mut­ter’s not set­tling for a sec­ond place fin­ish.

“Com­bin­ing im­munother­a­py with vac­cine tech­nol­o­gy may be a new path to­ward im­prov­ing out­comes for pa­tients,” said Perl­mut­ter, pres­i­dent, Mer­ck Re­search Lab­o­ra­to­ries. “While the area of per­son­al­ized can­cer vac­cine re­search has faced chal­lenges in the past, there have been many re­cent ad­vances, and we be­lieve that work­ing with Mod­er­na to com­bine an im­muno-on­col­o­gy ap­proach, us­ing KEYTRU­DA, with mR­NA-based per­son­al­ized can­cer vac­cines may have the po­ten­tial to trans­form the treat­ment of can­cer.”

Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos (via Getty Images)

With ad­u­canum­ab caught on a cliff, Bio­gen’s Michel Vounatsos bets bil­lions on an­oth­er high-risk neu­ro play

With its FDA pitch on the Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab hanging perilously close to disaster, Biogen is rolling the dice on a $3.1 billion deal that brings in commercial rights to one of the other spotlight neuro drugs in late-stage development — after it already failed its first Phase III.

The big biotech has turned to Sage Therapeutics for its latest deal, close to a year after the crushing failure of Sage-217, now dubbed zuranolone, in the MOUNTAIN study.

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As­traZeneca, Ox­ford on the de­fen­sive as skep­tics dis­miss 70% av­er­age ef­fi­ca­cy for Covid-19 vac­cine

On the third straight Monday that the world wakes up to positive vaccine news, AstraZeneca and Oxford are declaring a new Phase III milestone in the fight against the pandemic. Not everyone is convinced they will play a big part, though.

With an average efficacy of 70%, the headline number struck analysts as less impressive than the 95% and 94.5% protection that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have boasted in the past two weeks, respectively. But the British partners say they have several other bright spots going for their candidate. One of the two dosing regimens tested in Phase III showed a better profile, bringing efficacy up to 90%; the adenovirus vector-based vaccine requires minimal refrigeration, which may mean easier distribution; and AstraZeneca has pledged to sell it at a fraction of the price that the other two vaccine developers are charging.

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Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter Ko­dak de­ba­cle, US lends $1.1B to a syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy com­pa­ny and their big Covid-19, mR­NA plans

In mid-August, as Kodak’s $765 million government-backed push into drug manufacturing slowly fell apart in national headlines, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO Jason Kelly got a message from his company’s government liaison: HHS wanted to know if they, too, might want a loan.

The government’s decision to lend Kodak three quarters of a billion dollars raised eyebrows because Kodak had never made drugs before. But Ginkgo, while not a manufacturing company, had spent the last decade refining new ways to produce materials inside cells and building automated facilities across Boston.

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Vivek Ramaswamy (Jeff Rumans/JPM 2020)

Urovan­t's lead drug dis­ap­points in mid-stage study as first big FDA de­ci­sion looms

Just as Urovant gets ready for its first big FDA decision on vibegron, the drug has flopped in what would’ve been a follow-on indication.

In a Phase IIa trial involving women with abdominal pain due to irritable bowel syndrome, vibegron failed to meet the bar on improving “average worst abdominal pain” over 12 weeks, compared to placebo, among IBS-D patients.

There were actually slightly more responders in the placebo group than in the drug arm, with only 40.9% of those randomized to vigebron achieving at least a 30% decrease in “worst abdominal pain” in the past 24 hours. The trial enrolled 222 women but only 189 completed the study.

Bahija Jallal (file photo)

TCR pi­o­neer Im­muno­core scores a first with a land­mark PhI­II snap­shot on over­all sur­vival for a rare melanoma

Bahija Jallal’s crew at TCR pioneer Immunocore says they have nailed down a promising set of pivotal data for their lead drug in a frontline setting for a solid tumor. And they are framing this early interim readout as the convincing snapshot they need to prove that their platform can deliver on a string of breakthrough therapies now in the clinic or planned for it.

In advance of the Monday announcement, Jallal and R&D chief David Berman took some time to walk me through the first round of Phase III data for their lead TCR designed to treat rare, frontline cases of metastatic uveal melanoma that come with a grim set of survival expectations.

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Gen­mab ax­es an ADC de­vel­op­ment pro­gram af­ter the da­ta fail to im­press

Genmab $GMAB has opted to ax one of its antibody-drug conjugates after watching it flop in the clinic.

The Danish biotech reported Tuesday that it decided to kill their program for enapotamab vedotin after the data gathered from expansion cohorts failed to measure up. According to the company:

While enapotamab vedotin has shown some evidence of clinical activity, this was not optimized by different dose schedules and/or predictive biomarkers. Accordingly, the data from the expansion cohorts did not meet Genmab’s stringent criteria for proof-of-concept.

Vas Narasimhan, Novartis CEO (Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Vas Narasimhan's 'Wild Card' drugs: No­var­tis CEO high­lights po­ten­tial jack­pots, as well as late-stage stars, in R&D pre­sen­ta­tion

Novartis is always one of the industry’s biggest R&D spenders. As they often do toward the end of each year, company execs are highlighting the drugs they expect will most likely be winners in 2021.

And they’re also dreaming about some potential big-time lottery tickets.

As part of its annual investor presentation Tuesday, where the company allows investors and analysts to virtually schmooze with the bigwigs, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan will outline what he thinks are the pharma’s “Wild Cards.” The slate of five experimental drugs are those that Novartis hopes can be high-risk, high-reward entrants into the market over the next half-decade or so, and cover a wide range of indications.

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The ad­u­canum­ab co­nun­drum: The PhI­II failed a clear reg­u­la­to­ry stan­dard, but no one is cer­tain what that means any­more at the FDA

Eighteen days ago, virtually all of the outside experts on an FDA adcomm got together to mug the agency’s Billy Dunn and the Biogen team when they presented their upbeat assessment on aducanumab. But here we are, more than 2 weeks later, and the ongoing debate over that Alzheimer’s drug’s fate continues unabated.

Instead of simply ruling out any chance of an approval, the logical conclusion based on what we heard during that session, a series of questionable approvals that preceded the controversy over the agency’s recent EUA decisions has come back to haunt the FDA, where the power of precedent is leaving an opening some experts believe can still be exploited by the big biotech.

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John Maraganore, Alnylam CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Al­ny­lam gets the green light from the FDA for drug #3 — and CEO John Maraganore is ready to roll

Score another early win at the FDA for Alnylam.

The FDA put out word today that the agency has approved its third drug, lumasiran, for primary hyperoxaluria type 1, better known as PH1. The news comes just 4 days after the European Commission took the lead in offering a green light.

An ultra rare genetic condition, Alnylam CEO John Maraganore says there are only some 1,000 to 1,700 patients in the US and Europe at any particular point. The patients, mostly kids, suffer from an overproduction of oxalate in the liver that spurs the development of kidney stones, right through to end stage kidney disease.

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