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.

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