Two more pa­tients die as Juno’s lead CAR-T turns lethal again; tri­al halt­ed

Juno CEO Hans Bish­op

Juno’s lead CAR-T drug is killing more pa­tients, and this time it may have reached the end of the clin­i­cal road.

Four months af­ter the biotech was forced to scram­ble to save the pro­gram in the wake of three pa­tient deaths, Juno says that two more pa­tients have died of cere­bral ede­ma out of on­ly 12 more pa­tients treat­ed in the study.

Juno has vol­un­tar­i­ly put the study back on clin­i­cal hold and in­formed reg­u­la­tors at the FDA, who may not be so quick to al­low this study to re­sume this time around.

Juno’s stock $JUNO im­me­di­ate­ly cratered af­ter trad­ing was re­sumed, plung­ing 45%.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have been treat­ing adult pa­tients with re­lapsed or re­frac­to­ry B cell acute lym­phoblas­tic leukemia in the “ROCK­ET” tri­al. “The clin­i­cal hold was ini­ti­at­ed af­ter two pa­tients suf­fered cere­bral ede­ma ear­li­er this week,” Juno said in a state­ment. “One pa­tient died and as of last night the oth­er is not ex­pect­ed to re­cov­er.”

Juno is now con­sid­er­ing its “op­tions.”

In a call with an­a­lysts, Juno ex­ecs said that one of those op­tions is drop­ping the JCAR015 tri­al and mov­ing on to JCAR017 and oth­er drugs in the pipeline, which would put them even fur­ther be­hind.

In Ju­ly, the com­pa­ny firm­ly pinned the first deaths on flu­dara­bine, a drug used to con­di­tion pa­tients in this and many oth­er stud­ies. Pulling flu from the treat­ment reg­i­men, they in­sist­ed, would pre­vent fur­ther deaths.

That did not hap­pen. And to­day Juno’s team was forced to deal with a sim­ple ques­tion: “Do we know what’s re­al­ly go­ing on?”

CMO Mark Gilbert han­dled that ques­tion gin­ger­ly, not­ing that the com­pa­ny con­tin­ues to learn more about CAR-T over time.  These new cas­es oc­curred very re­cent­ly, he adds. And cere­bral ede­mas have been as­so­ci­at­ed with a num­ber of CAR-Ts.

“I do think we un­der­stand that there’s a strong cor­re­la­tion of rapid ex­pan­sion of CAR-T cells seem to cor­re­late di­rect­ly on cere­bral ede­ma,” he added. “That’s the big fo­cus for us.”

I queried the FDA on its de­ci­sion to quick­ly green-light the re­sump­tion of the tri­al back in Ju­ly and whether they were go­ing to re­in­sti­tute the hold, but in a lengthy re­sponse a spokesper­son didn’t an­swer my ques­tions, or even re­fer to Juno, JCAR015 or cere­bral ede­ma.

While no de­ci­sion on JCAR015’s fu­ture has been made at Juno, ex­ecs quick­ly fo­cused on JCAR017 as its next lead pro­gram to turn to.

“We’ve not seen any se­vere cas­es of se­vere CRS” with JCAR017, said Juno CEO Hans Bish­op on the call. There was al­so a low­er neu­ro­tox­i­c­i­ty rate and no treat­ment-re­lat­ed mor­tal­i­ties. “We’re en­cour­aged by the safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy pro­file of JCAR017.”

Back in Ju­ly the FDA took on­ly a few days to re­spond pos­i­tive­ly to Juno’s plan to re­sume the study, drop­ping the use of flu­dara­bine, which is com­mon­ly used to prep pa­tients for these cell ther­a­pies. The com­pa­ny pinned the first three deaths from cere­bral ede­mas — along with a fourth in a sep­a­rate study — on its mix of JCAR015 and the com­bo that was used to im­prove its chances of suc­cess.

This new set­back will force the FDA to re­view its own role in get­ting the pro­gram restart­ed af­ter just a few days of re­view — a rare oc­cur­rence at the agency which stunned a num­ber of ob­servers at the time.

While the last hold was brief, it held se­ri­ous con­se­quences for Juno, throw­ing it off track and push­ing any new drug ap­pli­ca­tion back to 2018. That gave the edge to Kite, which has so far re­port­ed no un­usu­al ad­verse events re­lat­ed to its use of flu­dara­bine. Kite now ex­pects to com­plete its first ap­pli­ca­tion in Q1 2017, and No­var­tis is al­so shoot­ing for a 2017 fil­ing for its ri­val CAR-T.

These drugs work by ex­tract­ing T cells from pa­tients and then equip­ping them with chimeric anti­gen re­cep­tors, which then ze­ro in on can­cer cells. This first gen­er­a­tion of CAR-Ts, which is like­ly to be eclipsed by ear­ly-stage ef­forts, has been known to trig­ger harsh side ef­fects. But reg­u­la­tors have been will­ing to put up with the added risk for tri­als that in­volve very sick vol­un­teers.

UP­DAT­ED: Clay Sie­gall’s $614M wa­ger on tu­ca­tinib pays off with solid­ly pos­i­tive piv­otal da­ta and a date with the FDA

Back at the beginning of 2018, Clay Siegall snagged a cancer drug called tucatinib with a $614 million cash deal to buy Cascadian. It paid off today with a solid set of mid-stage data for HER2 positive breast cancer that will in turn serve as the pivotal win Siegall needs to seek an accelerated approval in the push for a new triplet therapy.

And if all the cards keep falling in its favor, they’ll move from 1 drug on the market to 3 in 2020, which is shaping up as a landmark year as Seattle Genetics prepares for its 23rd anniversary on July 15.

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UP­DAT­ED: The FDA sets a reg­u­la­to­ry speed record, pro­vid­ing a snap OK for Ver­tex's break­through triplet for cys­tic fi­bro­sis

The FDA has approved Vertex’s new triplet for cystic fibrosis at a record-setting speed.

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IM­brave150: Roche’s reg­u­la­to­ry crew plans a glob­al roll­out of Tecen­triq com­bo for liv­er can­cer as PhI­II scores a hit

Just weeks after Bristol-Myers Squibb defended its failed pivotal study pitting Opdivo against Nexavar in liver cancer, Roche says it’s beat the frontline challenge with a combination of their PD-L1 Tecentriq with Avastin. And now they’re rolling their regulatory teams in the US, Europe and China in search of a new approval — badly needed to boost a trailing franchise effort.
Given their breakthrough and Big Pharma status as well as the use of two approved drugs, FDA approval may well prove to be something of a formality. And the Chinese have been clear that they want new drugs for liver cancer, where lethal disease rates are particularly high.
Researchers at their big biotech sub, Genentech, say that the combo beat Bayer’s Nexavar on both progression-free survival as well as overall survival — the first advance in this field in more than a decade. We won’t get the breakdown in months of life gained, but it’s a big win for Roche, which has lagged far, far behind Keytruda and Opdivo, the dominant PD-1s that have captured the bulk of the checkpoint market so far.
Researchers recruited hepatocellular carcinoma — the most common form of liver cancer — patients for the IMbrave150 study who weren’t eligible for surgery ahead of any systemic treatment of the disease.
Roche has a fairly low bar to beat, with modest survival benefit for Nexavar, approved for this indication 12 years ago. But they also plan to offer a combo therapy that could have significantly less toxicity, offering patients a much easier treatment regimen.
Cowen’s Steven Scala recently sized up the importance of IMbrave150, noting:

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That $335M JV Bay­er set up on CRISPR/Cas9? They’re let­ting the biotech part­ner car­ry on

Bayer committed $300 million to set up a joint venture on CRISPR/Cas9 tech with CRISPR Therapeutics $CRSP. But they’re handing off control now to the smaller biotech while retaining a couple of opt-ins for programs nearing an IND.

Bayer $BAY made much of the fact that they were going all-in on gene editing when they did their deal 3 years ago with CRISPR Therapeutics, which pitched $35 million in on their end. This was the cornerstone of their plan to set up new JVs that could make some serious leap forwards in hot new R&D spaces. Now CRISPR will have full management control of Casebia as they pursue programs in hemophilia, ophthalmology and autoimmune diseases.
Samarth Kulkarni, the CEO at CRISPR, made it sound like a natural progression.

J&J's block­buster Ste­lara wins US ap­proval for ul­cer­a­tive col­i­tis

J&J’s Stelara, which is set to be in the top ten list of blockbusters come 2025, is now cleared by the FDA for use in ulcerative colitis (UC), an inflammatory disease of the large intestine.

The biologic targets interleukin (IL)-12 and IL-23 cytokines, which are known to play a key role in inflammatory and immune responses. Stelara, which generated about $4.7 billion in the first nine months of 2019, is a key player in the crowded marketplace of drugs to treat autoimmune disorders such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. AbbVie’s star therapy, Humira, continues to dominate, despite its looming patent cliff in the United States, while others including J&J’s $JNJ own anti-IL23 Tremfya, Lilly’s $LLY anti-IL-17 Taltz and AbbVie’s $ABBV recently approved anti-IL-23 antibody Skyrizi carve out a slice of market share.

Drug com­pa­nies reach $260M set­tle­ment just ahead of opi­oid tri­al; Oys­ter Point set terms for $85M IPO

→ Hours before the first federal opioid trial was set to begin, three drug distributors and an opioid manufacturer agreed to a $260 million agreement settlement, the Wall Street Journal was the first to report. The deal — which will see McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen pay $215 million to Summit and Cuyahoga counties, and Teva deal out $35 million in cash and addiction treatments — does not resolve the pending, nationwide litigation that may result in a settlement worth upwards of $40 billion. Negotiators in that case, brought by 2,300 tribes, counties and cities nationwide and led by several states’ attorneys general, worked through much of Friday without success. Josh Stein, the attorney general for North Carolina, said they were trying to put together a $48 billion deal.

GSK of­floads two vac­cines in $1.1B deal as it works to re­vive the pipeline

GlaxoSmithKline is leaving the deep dark woods and its viruses behind.

GSK has agreed to divest its vaccines for rabies, RabAvert, and tick-born encephalitis vaccine, Encepur, to Bavarian Nordic, part of the company’s broader efforts to narrow its pipeline and focus on oncology and immunology.

The deal is worth up to nearly $1.1 billion, with a $336 million upfront payment. GSK acquired the vaccines from Novartis as part of an exchange for their late-stage oncology programs in 2015 under former chief Sir Andrew Witty.

Pfiz­er gets some en­cour­ag­ing PhI­II news on a fran­chise sav­ior, but is a dos­ing ad­van­tage worth the $295M up­front?

Close to 3 years after Opko tried to defend itself as shares tumbled on the news that its long-acting growth hormone had failed to outperform a placebo, the Pfizer partner $PFE is back. And this time they’re pitching Phase III data that demonstrate their drug is non-inferior — or maybe a tad better — than their well-known but fading standard in the field.
The comparator drug here is Genotropin, which earned a marginal $142 million for Pfizer last year — down 9% from the year before. Approved 24 years ago, biosimilars are now in development that Pfizer would like to stay out in front of. The market leader here is Norditropin, a growth hormone from Novo Nordisk that uses the same basic ingredient as Genotropin, which the Danish company sells with a kid-friendly self-injectable pen. That would also present some big competition if the new therapy from Opko/Pfizer makes it to the market.
The new data, says researchers, underscore that a weekly injection of somatrogon performed as well or slightly better than Genotropin (somatropin) in young children with growth hormone deficiency. Investigators tracked height velocity at 10.12 cm/year, edging out the older drug’s 9.78 cm/year. That 0.33 difference may not prove compelling to payers, though, who have been known to overlook dosing advantages in favor of lower costs.
That message may have weighed on the stock reaction this morning, with a 30%-plus hike $OPK giving way to more marginal gains.
Back in late 2016, Opko had to defend itself against a devastating Phase III setback as their initial late-stage trial failed against a sugar pill. Opko later blamed that setback on outliers in the study, though it wasn’t able to expunge the failure.

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As­traZeneca's Farx­i­ga scores FDA nod to cut risk of hos­pi­tal­iza­tion for heart fail­ure in di­a­bet­ics

While the FDA recently spurned an application to allow AstraZeneca’s blockbuster drug Farxiga for type 1 diabetes that cannot be controlled by insulin, citing safety concerns — the US regulator has endorsed the use of the SGLT2 treatment to reduce the risk of hospitalisation for heart failure in patients with type-2 diabetes and established cardiovascular disease or multiple CV risk factors.