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.

BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

Covid-19 roundup: As­traZeneca shoots for 2B dos­es of Ox­ford vac­cine — with $750M from CEPI, Gavi

Forget 1 billion. AstraZeneca is now promising to supply 2 billion doses of Oxford University’s Covid-19 vaccine around the world per year.

Three new partners are coming on board to help reach that goal, as well as a broader vision to ensure access for nations that have been largely left out of the bargaining table.

CEPI — the coalition that’s been doling out grants to support other vaccine projects — is providing $383 million to support manufacturing of 300 million doses, while Gavi the Vaccine Alliance will chip in $367 million and be in charge of the procurement and distribution, a spokesperson told Wall Street Journal. A separate licensing agreement directs the Serum Institute of India to produce 1 billion doses for low- and middle-income countries, with the first 400 million due before the end of the year.

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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President Donald Trump (left) and Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed (Alex Brandon, AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: White House names fi­nal­ists for Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed — with 5 ex­pect­ed names and one no­table omis­sion

A month after word first broke of the Trump Administration’s plan to rapidly accelerate the development and production of a Covid-19 vaccine, the White House has selected the five vaccine candidates they consider most likely to succeed, The New York Times reported.

Most of the names in the plan, known as Operation Warp Speed, will come as little surprise to those who have watched the last four months of vaccine developments: Moderna, which was the first vaccine to reach humans and is now the furthest along of any US effort; J&J, which has not gone into trials but received around $500 million in funding from BARDA earlier this year; the joint AstraZeneca-Oxford venture which was granted $1.2 billion from BARDA two weeks ago; Pfizer, which has been working with the mRNA biotech BioNTech; and Merck, which just entered the race and expects to put their two vaccine candidates into humans later this year.

Michael Gladstone, partner at Atlas Venture

At­las rais­es new $400M fund amid spree of VC rais­es. Here’s what they’ll spend it on

You can add another few hundred million to the now Montana-sized reservoir of cash biotech VCs have raised since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic.

Atlas Venture, the prominent Kendall Square incubator, has raised $400 million for its twelfth biotech fund, their first in 3 years. After a string of mammoth new raises from other major VCs in April and May, the total pot now stands between $5 billion and $6 billion, depending on how you slice it.

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Leen Kawas, Athira CEO (Athira)

Can a small biotech suc­cess­ful­ly tack­le an Ever­est climb like Alzheimer’s? Athi­ra has $85M and some in­flu­en­tial back­ers ready to give it a shot

There haven’t been a lot of big venture rounds for biotech companies looking to run a Phase II study in Alzheimer’s.

The field has been a disaster over the past decade. Amyloid didn’t pan out as a target — going down in a litany of Phase III failures — and is now making its last stand at Biogen. Tau is a comer, but when you look around and all you see is destruction, the idea of backing a startup trying to find complex cocktails to swing the course of this devilishly complicated memory-wasting disease would daunt the pluckiest investors.

GSK presents case to ex­pand use of its lu­pus drug in pa­tients with kid­ney dis­ease, but the field is evolv­ing. How long will the mo­nop­oly last?

In 2011, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta became the first biologic to win approval for lupus patients. Nine years on, the British drugmaker has unveiled detailed positive results from a study testing the drug in lupus patients with associated kidney disease — a post-marketing requirement from the initial FDA approval.

Lupus is a drug developer’s nightmare. In the last six decades, there has been just one FDA approval (Benlysta), with the field resembling a graveyard in recent years with a string of failures including UCB and Biogen’s late-stage flop, as well as defeats in Xencor and Sanofi’s programs. One of the main reasons the success has eluded researchers is because lupus, akin to cancer, is not just one disease — it really is a disease of many diseases, noted Al Roy, executive director of Lupus Clinical Investigators Network, an initiative of New York-based Lupus Research Alliance that claims it is the world’s leading private funder of lupus research, in an interview.

UP­DAT­ED: Es­ti­mat­ing a US price tag of $5K per course, remde­sivir is set to make bil­lions for Gilead, says key an­a­lyst

Data on remdesivir — the first drug shown to benefit Covid-19 patients in a randomized, controlled trial setting — may be murky, but its maker Gilead could reap billions from the sales of the failed Ebola therapy, according to an estimate by a prominent Wall Street analyst. However, the forecast, which is based on a $5,000-per-course US price tag, triggered the ire of one top drug price expert.

FDA de­lays de­ci­sion on No­var­tis’ po­ten­tial block­buster MS drug, wip­ing away pri­or­i­ty re­view

So much for a speedy review.

In February, Novartis announced that an application for their much-touted multiple sclerosis drug ofatumumab had been accepted and, with the drug company cashing in on one of their priority review vouchers, the agency was due for a decision by June.

But with June less than 48 hours old, Novartis announced the agency has extended their review, pushing back the timeline for approval or rejection to September. The Swiss pharma filed the application in December, meaning their new schedule will be nearly in line with the standard 10-month window period had they not used the priority voucher.

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