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.

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

The End­points 11: They've got mad mon­ey and huge am­bi­tions. It's time to go big or go home

These days, selecting a group of private biotechs for the Endpoints 11 spotlight begins with a sprint to get ahead of IPOs and the M&A teams at Big Pharma. I’ve had a couple of faceplants earlier this year, watching some of the biotechs on my short list choose a quick leap onto Nasdaq or into the arms of a buyer.

Vividion, you would have been a great pick for the Endpoints 11. I’m sorry I missed you.

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Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis Gene Ther­a­pies? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1,500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

FDA au­tho­rizes Pfiz­er's vac­cine boost­er for se­niors, those at high risk for se­vere Covid-19

The Biden administration’s goal of kicking off its booster shot drive for the entire US population this week is not quite going as planned.

First, Pfizer applied for approval of a supplemental application for the booster shots, but since last Friday’s adcomm reviewing them, the plan has devolved into an EUA, which the FDA issued late Thursday evening.

The population that is now eligible for the booster, six months after receiving the first pair of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, also narrowed from what Pfizer applied for (everyone who’s eligible for the initial Pfizer shots) to just those who are 65 or older, or at high-risk of a Covid infection, including health care workers and others with occupational hazards.

Stéphane Bancel, AP Images

Fi­nal analy­sis of US-fund­ed Mod­er­na Covid vac­cine tri­al shows 98% ef­fi­ca­cy against se­vere dis­ease

A final look at the results of the placebo-controlled Moderna trial in the New England Journal of Medicine, published Thursday afternoon, shows how the vaccine continues to prevent Covid-19 and severe cases after more than five months following the second shot.

Of the more than 30,000 enrolled in the trial that ultimately led to the vaccine’s EUA, only two people in the vaccine group got a severe form of the disease, compared to 106 in the placebo group — leading to an efficacy of 98%.

Emma Walmsley, GlaxoSmithKline CEO (Credit: Fang Zhe/Xinhua/Alamy Live News)

The fire un­der Glax­o­SmithK­line's Em­ma Walm­s­ley grows as an­oth­er well-known ac­tivist in­vestor grabs its pitch­fork — re­port

Bluebell Capital Partners, a proxy brawler fresh off a campaign to oust global food giant Danone’s CEO and most of its board of directors, has bought a stake in UK drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline with its eyes trained directly on Emma Walmsley, the Financial Times reported Wednesday.

The London-based hedge fund joins another notorious activist firm in Paul Singer’s Elliott Management, which earlier this year called for a shakeup in leadership at GSK to handle what the company described as a wealth of riches across the drug giant’s portfolio hindered by limited vision from top staff.

FDA+ roundup: Bs­U­FA III ready for show­time, court tells FDA to re-work com­pound­ing plan, new guid­ance up­dates and more

The FDA has now spelled out what exactly will be included in the third iteration of Biosimilar User Fee Act (BsUFA) from 2023 through 2027, which similarly to the prescription drug deal, sets fees that industry has to pay for submitting applications, in exchange for firm timelines that the agency must meet.

This latest deal includes several sweeteners for the biosimilar industry, which has yet to make great strides in the US market, with shorter review timelines for safety labeling updates and updates to add or remove an indication that does not contain efficacy data.

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Joshua Liang, Clover Biopharmaceuticals CEO

With world still in sore need of dos­es, Clover says its Covid-19 vac­cine is 67% ef­fec­tive in Phase III

With concerns about the Delta variant rising and much of the world still in desperate need of vaccine doses, a Chinese biotech announced Wednesday that a new shot has shown positive results in a large trial against Covid-19, including new variants.

Clover Biopharmaceuticals announced Wednesday that its vaccine candidate showed 79% efficacy against the Delta variant in a Phase II/III trial dubbed Spectra, and 67% effective against Covid-19 overall.