Sem­ma steps to­ward the clin­ic af­ter demon­strat­ing ef­fect of po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure in land­mark an­i­mal stud­ies

The re­search team at the well-fund­ed Sem­ma Ther­a­peu­tics has cleared one of the last re­main­ing hur­dles to get­ting a po­ten­tial cure for di­a­betes in­to hu­man stud­ies. And if they’re right, it marks a ma­jor pre­clin­i­cal mile­stone for a resur­gent re­gen­er­a­tive med­i­cine field fo­cused on a new gen­er­a­tion of stem cell ther­a­pies.

Fe­li­cia Pagli­u­ca

Fe­li­cia Pagli­u­ca, VP of cell bi­ol­o­gy re­search and de­vel­op­ment at the Cam­bridge, MA-based biotech, told the 2019 In­ter­na­tion­al So­ci­ety for Stem Cell Re­search meet­ing in LA Sat­ur­day that their stem cell-de­rived islets per­formed as hoped for — pro­duc­ing in­sulin — in a study in­volv­ing non-hu­man pri­mates whose im­mune sys­tems had been flat­tened to pre­vent a re­jec­tion. In a sep­a­rate study in­volv­ing two pigs, a pack­age of these en­gi­neered islets con­tained in a spe­cial­ly de­signed pack­age were used suc­cess­ful­ly to gen­er­ate in­sulin with­out need­ing an im­muno­sup­pres­sant to pro­tect against a re­ac­tion.

“For the first time ever the de­vice pro­tects the cell,” Pagli­u­ca told me in a pre­view of to­day’s ses­sion, of­fer­ing ev­i­dence from a large an­i­mal mod­el that the tech­nol­o­gy func­tions with blood glu­cose lev­els, spurring in­sulin se­cre­tion as need­ed. “They re­al­ly show quite con­sis­tent re­spon­sive­ness.”

And that’s with­out fi­bro­sis, with­out cell suf­fo­ca­tion, while watch­ing the in­te­gra­tion of cell ther­a­py in­to host tis­sue.

Bas­tiano San­na

It’s ex­cit­ing, says Sem­ma CEO Bas­tiano San­na, to see the “cu­ra­tive po­ten­tial” of this cell ther­a­py.

Re­al­ly? A cure? For a mass mar­ket dis­ease like di­a­betes?

If that all seems a bit too won­der­ful to be be­lieved, think about where Pagli­u­ca is com­ing from. Stem cell ther­a­pies had their hey­day well over a decade ago as the next big thing in med­i­cine — an overnight sen­sa­tion which sput­tered out in fail­ure as the sur­vivors went back in­to the lab to do the hard work nec­es­sary to make it a re­al­i­ty. That long pe­ri­od of qui­et bred con­sid­er­able skep­ti­cism, es­pe­cial­ly af­ter the first wave of promised cures failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize. And she’s watched it play out as re­gen­er­a­tive med­i­cine made its come­back.

One of those pi­o­neer­ing sci­en­tists who stayed in the lab was Sem­ma sci­en­tif­ic founder and Har­vard pro­fes­sor Doug Melton, who pub­lished a land­mark study 5 years ago out­lin­ing how he had suc­cess­ful­ly used stem cells to cre­ate in­sulin-pro­duc­ing pan­cre­at­ic be­ta cells that were in­sert­ed in bulk in­to mice and suc­cess­ful­ly pro­tect­ed from an im­mune re­sponse — a break­through in re­gen­er­a­tive med­i­cine. And he’d been work­ing on the cure for more than 20 years, which he start­ed fol­low­ing his son’s di­ag­no­sis of Type 1 di­a­betes. 

They’ve raised $158 mil­lion over 4 years at Sem­ma to get to this stage, stand­ing on the thresh­old of a pair of small hu­man stud­ies set to launch next year. They’ll now see if they can re­pro­duce in hu­mans what they did in the non-hu­man pri­mates and pigs: first by run­ning a small study with an im­muno­sup­pres­sant, fol­lowed by the use of their de­vice in an­oth­er study lat­er next year that will avoid im­muno­sup­pres­sants.

CAR-T and gene ther­a­pies have come along to demon­strate cu­ra­tive po­ten­tial, but the CEO says it’s been frus­trat­ing to see the first wave of these ther­a­pies tar­get­ed at tiny pa­tient pop­u­la­tions. “We’re very ex­cit­ed about bring­ing the cu­ra­tive po­ten­tial of cell ther­a­pies in­to a large in­di­ca­tion.”

They’re tak­ing it step by step.

No­body is rolling out a mass tri­al for Type 2 di­a­betes. The first goal is to go af­ter some of the Type 1 di­a­betes pa­tients who are the hard­est to treat, with nowhere left to turn to rein in the au­toim­mune dis­ease. Af­ter that, they can turn to the broad­er Type 1 pop­u­la­tion be­fore mov­ing on, per­haps in­to par­tic­u­lar sub­groups of Type 2.

Ini­tial­ly, the goal will be to get the islets to do the work need­ed to safe­ly pro­duce in­sulin for these pa­tients at a re­li­able lev­el. These stem cell-de­rived islets will have to be able to be man­u­fac­tured at scale. And there’s work un­der­way to see if there’s a uni­ver­sal cell de­sign that can be used to avoid the need for the de­vice they use — some­thing Melton com­pares to a tea bag.

Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House (Photo: AFP)

Trump’s HHS claims ab­solute au­thor­i­ty over the FDA, clear­ing path to a vac­cine EUA

The top career staff at the FDA has vowed not to let politics overrule science when looking at vaccine data this fall. But Alex Azar, who happens to be their boss’s boss, apparently won’t even give them a chance to stand in the way.

In a new memorandum issued Tuesday last week, the HHS chief stripped the FDA and other health agencies under his purview of their rule making ability, asserting all such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times first obtained and reported the details of the September 15 bulletin.

#ES­MO20: Push­ing in­to front­line, Mer­ck and Bris­tol My­ers duke it out with new slate of GI can­cer da­ta

Having worked in parallel for years to move their respective PD-1 inhibitors up to the first-line treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb finally have the data at ESMO for a showdown.

Comparing KEYNOTE-590 and CheckMate-649, of course, comes with the usual caveats. But a side-by-side look at the overall survival numbers also offer some perspective on a new frontier for the reigning checkpoint rivals, both of whom are claiming to have achieved a first.

President Donald Trump (via AP Images)

Signs of an 'Oc­to­ber Vac­cine Sur­prise' alarm ca­reer sci­en­tists

President Donald Trump, who seems intent on announcing a COVID-19 vaccine before Election Day, could legally authorize a vaccine over the objections of experts, officials at the FDA and even vaccine manufacturers, who have pledged not to release any vaccine unless it’s proved safe and effective.

In podcasts, public forums, social media and medical journals, a growing number of prominent health leaders say they fear that Trump — who has repeatedly signaled his desire for the swift approval of a vaccine and his displeasure with perceived delays at the FDA — will take matters into his own hands, running roughshod over the usual regulatory process.

#ES­MO20: Bris­tol My­ers marks Op­di­vo's sec­ond ad­ju­vant win — eye­ing a stan­dard of care gap

Moving into earlier and earlier treatment lines, Bristol Myers Squibb is reporting that adjuvant treatment with Opdivo has doubled the time that esophageal or gastroesophageal junction cancer patients stay free of disease.

With the CheckMate-577 data at ESMO, CMO Samit Hirawat said, the company believes it can change the treatment paradigm.

While a quarter to 30% of patients typically achieve a complete response following chemoradiation therapy and surgery, the rest do not, said Ronan Kelly of Baylor University Medical Center. The recurrence rate is also high within the first year, Hirawat added.

Clay Siegall (Life Science Washington via YouTube)

#ES­MO20: Seat­tle Ge­net­ics eyes 4th ap­proval with new da­ta in a crowd­ed field

Does Seattle Genetics have another approval on its hands?

The last 12 months, not so great for the world, has been great for Seattle Genetics. The company landed two separate FDA approvals, signed a $4.5 billion deal with Merck and watched antibody-drug conjugates — the technology they spent years developing to broad industry skepticism — emerge suddenly as one of the most popular approaches in oncology. And on Monday at ESMO, the company and their partners at Genmab unveiled the data behind the ADC it hopes will provide its next major FDA approval.

Jonathan Rigby, Immune Regulation group CEO

Im­mune Reg­u­la­tion, tak­ing two clin­i­cal pro­grams to 're­set' the im­mune sys­tem, nets $53M+ Se­ries B

A little under two years after a company rebranding, Immune Regulation is taking an even bigger step toward advancing its goals.

Formerly known as Peptinnovate, the British biotech announced a $53.4 million Series B early Monday morning, helping to further advance two clinical programs in rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. Though those are the two initial indications the company is focusing on, CEO Jonathan Rigby told Endpoints News he hopes the candidates can be applied to a broad swath of autoimmune disorders.

Eli Lilly CSO Dan Skovronsky (file photo)

UP­DAT­ED: #ES­MO20: Eli Lil­ly shows off the da­ta for its Verzenio suc­cess. Was it worth $18 bil­lion?

The press release alone, devoid of any number except for the size of the trial, added nearly $20 billion to Eli Lilly’s market cap back in June. Now investors and oncologists will get to see if the data live up to the hype.

On Sunday at ESMO, Eli Lilly announced the full results for its Phase III MonarchE trial of Verzenio, showing that across over 5,000 women who had had HR+, HER2- breast cancer, the drug reduced the odds of recurrence by 25%. That meant 7.8% of the patients on the drug arm saw their cancers return within 2 years, compared with 11.3% on the placebo arm.

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Greg Friberg (File photo)

#ES­MO20: Am­gen team nails down sol­id ear­ly ev­i­dence of AMG 510’s po­ten­tial for NSCLC, un­lock­ing the door to a wave of KRAS pro­grams

The first time I sat down with Amgen’s Greg Friberg to talk about the pharma giant’s KRAS G12C program for sotorasib (AMG 510) at ASCO a little more than a year ago, there was high excitement about the first glimpse of efficacy from their Phase I study, with 5 of 10 evaluable non-small cell lung cancer patients demonstrating a response to the drug.

After decades of failure targeting KRAS, sotorasib offered the first positive look at a new approach that promised to open a door to a whole new approach by targeting a particular mutation to a big target that had remained “undruggable” for decades.

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#ES­MO20: Out to beat Tagris­so, J&J touts 100% ORR for EGFR bis­pe­cif­ic/TKI com­bo — fu­el­ing a quick leap to PhI­II

J&J’s one-two punch on EGFR-mutant non-small cell lung cancer has turned up some promising — although decidedly early — results, fueling the idea that there’s yet room to one up on third-generation tyrosine kinase inhibitors.

Twenty out of 20 advanced NSCLC patients had a response after taking a combination of an in-house TKI dubbed lazertinib and amivantamab, a bispecific antibody targeting both EGFR and cMET engineered on partner Genmab’s platform, J&J reported at ESMO. All were treatment-naïve, and none has seen their cancer progress at a median follow-up of seven months.