Darrell Irvine. MIT

Su­per­charg­ing CAR-T with can­cer vac­cine, MIT team spot­lights some new tech un­der­pin­ning Dar­rell Irvine's start­up

Many of the ef­forts to im­prove on the first gen­er­a­tion of CAR-T ther­a­pies such that they can reach sol­id tu­mors had fo­cused on tweaks in­her­ent to the can­cer killing agent — specif­i­cal­ly, uti­liz­ing more po­tent T cells as their base, from stem mem­o­ry T cells to vi­ral­ly as­so­ci­at­ed T cells to mar­row in­fil­trat­ing lym­pho­cytes. But what if just am­pli­fy­ing CAR-T cells can do the job? Dar­rell Irvine and his team at MIT have some in­trigu­ing mouse da­ta for one such tech.

Leyuan Ma Irvine Lab

Writ­ing in Sci­ence, Irvine — an in­ves­ti­ga­tor at the Koch In­sti­tute for In­te­gra­tive Can­cer Re­search — and his post­doc Leyuan Ma de­scribe “am­phiphile CAR-T lig­ands (amph-lig­ands) that, up­on in­jec­tion, traf­ficked to lymph nodes and dec­o­rat­ed the sur­faces of anti­gen-pre­sent­ing cells, there­by prim­ing CAR-Ts in the na­tive lymph node mi­croen­vi­ron­ment.” Among mice giv­en the boost­er shot af­ter CAR-T in­fu­sion, 60% ex­pe­ri­enced a com­plete re­sponse for a va­ri­ety of tu­mors in­clud­ing glioblas­toma, breast and melanoma. In con­trast, bare­ly any­thing hap­pened to those giv­en just the cell ther­a­py.

It rep­re­sents a twist to the once-hot — but elu­sive — can­cer vac­cine ap­proach, whose premise is to in­duce an im­mune at­tack on tu­mor cells. It al­so promis­es to solve the dura­bil­i­ty prob­lem of CAR-T that many re­searchers have high­light­ed.

“This is a strat­e­gy that can be as­signed to any CAR-T cell and po­ten­tial­ly en­hance its func­tion,” he tells me, ren­der­ing it ex­po­nen­tial­ly more po­tent. “So what­ev­er oth­er strat­e­gy they might be tak­ing en­gi­neer­ing bet­ter CARs, build­ing in oth­er ge­net­ic pay­loads in­to the T cells, this would be a way to make those cells more func­tion­al in vi­vo.”

By send­ing a vac­cine di­rect­ly to the lymph nodes to stim­u­late CAR-T cells, he ex­plains, they hit two birds with one stone: Pre­vent­ing vac­cines from get­ting de­grad­ed and CAR-T cells from re­leas­ing tox­ic cy­tokines — both of which hap­pen in blood­streams. And it com­bines the promis­es of both ther­a­pies.

“If we take the an­i­mals that ap­pear to be cured and we rechal­lenge them with tu­mor cells, they will re­ject all of them,” Irvine said in an in­ter­view with MIT News. “That is an­oth­er ex­cit­ing as­pect of this strat­e­gy. You need to have T cells at­tack­ing many dif­fer­ent anti­gens to suc­ceed, be­cause if you have a CAR-T cell that sees on­ly one anti­gen, then the tu­mor on­ly has to mu­tate that one anti­gen to es­cape im­mune at­tack. If the ther­a­py in­duces new T-cell prim­ing, this kind of es­cape mech­a­nism be­comes much more dif­fi­cult.”

To de­liv­er the amph-lig­ands, the sci­en­tists tagged on a lipid tail that binds to al­bu­min in the blood­stream and fol­lows it to the lymph nodes. Once there, the anti­gen in­side the vac­cine — ei­ther the same one the CAR-T is orig­i­nal­ly en­gi­neered to rec­og­nize or an­oth­er, they test­ed both — su­per­charges T cells and spurs their pro­lif­er­a­tion.

Irvine is hope­ful about con­duct­ing first-in-hu­man tri­als with­in one to two years through Eli­cio Ther­a­peu­tics, the sec­ond biotech he co-found­ed. In ad­di­tion to go­ing af­ter sol­id tu­mor in­di­ca­tions, he al­so sees ap­pli­ca­tion of his am­pli­fied CAR-T in the more tra­di­tion­al CD19 and BC­MA set­tings, as well as de­ploy­ing the vac­cine can­di­date alone for KRAS-mu­tant can­cers.

Eli­cio launched ear­li­er this year with $30 mil­lion in fund­ing, Robert Con­nel­ly (old timers may re­mem­ber him as found­ing CEO of Do­man­tis) as chief and Gami­da Cells’ Ju­lian Adams as ex­ec­u­tive chair­man. The com­pa­ny is in talks with part­ners that might bring their own CAR-T to the ta­ble.

“Part of the beau­ty of this is,” he adds, “in the grand scheme of things, it will add noth­ing to the cost of CAR-T cell ther­a­py be­cause [it’s] es­sen­tial­ly a de­fined mol­e­c­u­lar en­ti­ty that can be made at scale pret­ty sim­ply.”

The re­search pub­lished to­day was par­tial­ly fund­ed by J&J — along­side the NIH, the Mar­ble Cen­ter for Can­cer Nanomed­i­cine and the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute of Gen­er­al Med­ical Sci­ences. Irvine said the phar­ma gi­ant is not cur­rent­ly an in­vestor, though it has been in touch.

Hal Barron, GSK

Break­ing the death spi­ral: Hal Bar­ron talks about trans­form­ing the mori­bund R&D cul­ture at GSK in a crit­i­cal year for the late-stage pipeline

Just ahead of GlaxoSmithKline’s Q2 update on Wednesday, science chief Hal Barron is making the rounds to talk up the pharma giant’s late-stage strategy as the top execs continue to woo back a deeply skeptical investor group while pushing through a whole new R&D culture.

And that’s not easy, Barron is quick to note. He told the Financial Times:

I think that culture, to some extent, is as hard, in fact even harder, than doing the science.

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Michel Vounatsos, Getty Images

UP­DAT­ED: Stay tuned: Bio­gen’s num­bers are great — it’s their wor­ri­some fu­ture that leaves an­a­lysts skit­tish

Biogen came out with an upbeat assessment of their Q2 numbers today, discounting the arrival of a key rival for its blockbuster Spinraza franchise. But the top execs remain grimly determined to not say much anything new about the sore points that have dragged down its stock, including the future of its big investment in Alzheimer’s or how it plans to invest the considerable cash that the big biotech continues to reap.

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Why wait? Cel­gene re­struc­tures a big Jounce pact — ze­ro­ing in on new I/O path­way with $530M deal and bump­ing ICOS

Celgene’s business team isn’t waiting for the big merger with Bristol-Myers Squibb to go through before syncing its strategy with the new mother ship.

Tuesday evening the big biotech unveiled a $530 million deal — $50 million in upfront cash — to amend their alliance with Jounce Therapeutics $JNCE to gain worldwide rights to JTX-8064, an antibody that targets the LILRB2 receptor on macrophages. Their old, $2.6 billion deal is being scrapped, leaving Jounce with a pipeline that includes the lead drug, the ICOS-targeting vopratelimab.

PACT Phar­ma says it's per­fect­ed the tech to se­lect neoanti­gens for per­son­al­ized ther­a­py — now on­to the clin­ic

At PACT Pharma, the lofty goal to unleash a “tsunami” of T cells personalized for each patient has hinged on the ability to correctly identify the neoantigens that form something of a fingerprint for each tumor, and extract the small group of T cells primed to attack the cancer. It still has a long way to go testing a treatment in humans, but the biotech says it has nailed that highly technical piece of the process.

UP­DAT­ED: My­ovan­t's uter­ine fi­broid drug looks com­pet­i­tive in PhI­II — but can they van­quish mighty Ab­b­Vie?

Vivek Ramaswamy’s Myovant $MYOV has closely matched its positive first round of Phase III data for their uterine fibroid drug relugolix, setting up a head-to-head rivalry with pharma giant AbbVie as the little biotech steers to the market with a planned filing in Q4.

Here’s how Myovant plans to prevail over the AbbVie $ABBV empire.

In the study, 71.2% of women receiving once-daily relugolix combination therapy achieved the clinical response they were looking for, compared to only 14.7% in the control arm. The data comfortably reflected the same outcomes in the first Phase III — 73.4% of women receiving once-daily oral relugolix combination therapy achieved the responder criteria compared with 18.9% of women receiving placebo — which will reassure regulators that they are getting the carefully randomized data that qualifies for the FDA’s gold standard for success.

Lit­tle Mar­i­nus sees its shares eclipsed as the Sage ri­val fails to com­pare on PPD in PhII

The executive team at Sage $SAGE have skirted another potential pitfall on its way to racking up a big future for its depression drug Zulresso.

Little Marinus Pharmaceuticals $MRNS had sought to challenge the Sage drug with an IV formulation — followed by an oral version — of ganaxolone for postpartum depression. But researchers say their Phase II study failed to positively differentiate itself from a placebo at 28 days — leaving them to hold up “clinically meaningful” data within the first day of administration compared to the control arm.

Roche cuts loose Tam­i­flu OTC rights, hand­ing Sanofi the keys as the phar­ma gi­ant dou­bles down on Xofluza

Roche set out to make a better flu medicine than Tamiflu as that franchise was headed to a generic showdown. Now they’ll see just how well Xofluza stacks up against the mainstay drug after handing off over-the-counter rights in the US to Sanofi.

Sanofi $SNY says it will now step in to negotiate a deal with the FDA to steer Tamiflu into the OTC market, a role that could well involve new studies to ease passage of the drug out of doctor’s hands and into the consumer end of the market. And the French pharma giant will have first dibs over “selected” OTC markets around the world as they push ahead.

Aca­dia is mak­ing the best of it, but their lat­est PhI­II Nu­plazid study is a bust

Acadia’s late-stage program to widen the commercial prospects for Nuplazid has hit a wall. The biotech reported that their Phase III ENHANCE trial flat failed. And while they $ACAD did their best to cherry pick positive data wherever they can be found, this is a clear setback for the biotech.

With close to 400 patients enrolled, researchers said the drug flunked the primary endpoint as an adjunctive therapy for patients with an inadequate response to antipsychotic therapy. The p-value was an ugly 0.0940 on the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale, which the company called out as a positive trend.

Their shares slid 12% on the news, good for a $426 million hit on a $3.7 billion market cap at close.

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Some Big Phar­mas stepped up their game on da­ta trans­paren­cy — but which flunked the test?

The nonprofit Bioethics International has come out with their latest scorecard on data transparency among the big biopharmas in the industry — flagging a few standouts while spotlighting some laggards who are continuing to underperform.

Now in its third year, the nonprofit created a new set of standards with Yale School of Medicine and Stanford Law School to evaluate the track record on trial registration, results reporting, publication and data-sharing practice.