The lat­est up­date on NK­TR-214/Op­di­vo from Nek­tar and Bris­tol-My­ers will keep the con­tro­ver­sy burn­ing over the ORR rate

Nek­tar Ther­a­peu­tics $NK­TR man­aged to slide 1 out of its 38 evalu­able stage 4 melanoma pa­tients in­to the win col­umn with its close­ly-watched 3-month up­date on Op­di­vo/NK­TR-214’s ob­jec­tive re­sponse rate. That man­aged to nudge up the ORR from 50% — a fig­ure that rout­ed Nek­tar’s stock at AS­CO — to 53%, which isn’t like­ly to con­vince any of the crit­ics that the biotech and its part­ners at Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb have come up with the kind of com­bo that can change the stan­dard of care in the field.

But if you ex­pect any­one di­rect­ly in­volved in this study to step back from the en­thu­si­as­tic pro­jec­tions that were made on the first op­ti­mistic da­ta points, you’d be flat wrong.

Adi Diab

While the cru­cial ORR bare­ly budged, Adi Diab from MD An­der­son point­ed straight to a high­er com­plete re­sponse rate, at 24% — “which is not seen with an­oth­er com­bi­na­tion.” He’s al­so of­fer­ing a thumbs up to a 76% dis­ease con­trol rate — up from 71% at AS­CO — as ev­i­dence that they’re on to some­thing spe­cial.

Sev­er­al an­a­lysts — in­clud­ing some in the Ever­cor­eISI team — had been look­ing for some­thing in the 60%-plus range for the ORR to win back the en­thu­si­asm that has drained away for NK­TR-214, a drug that a needy Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb paid $1.85 bil­lion up­front to part­ner on ear­li­er in the year. The drug is de­signed to bind to the CD122 re­cep­tor on the sur­face of CD-8 and CD-4 pos­i­tive im­mune cells to whip up an at­tack on var­i­ous can­cers.

And Diab says they can see ex­act­ly that re­sponse in pa­tients with pos­i­tive bio­mark­er re­sults for the tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ment.

As it stands, the re­searchers have a drug that ap­pears to have clear­ly waned in the more ma­ture 7.2-month me­di­an fol­lowup time for PIV­OT-02, drop­ping from 64% at the first cut of the da­ta at SITC last year. And just days ago Bris­tol-My­ers out­lined im­pres­sive 4-year over­all sur­vival re­sults from Check­Mate-067: 53% for Op­di­vo plus Yer­voy com­bo, 46% for Op­di­vo alone, and 30% for Yer­voy alone.

Diab, though, be­lieves that with bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing the drug, and bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion for physi­cians and pa­tients, the re­sponse rate can climb back up to 60%-plus. As for Yer­voy, he adds, the CT­LA-4 has a well known tox pro­file that leads to a high rate of ad­verse events that of­ten pre­vent pa­tients from com­plet­ing treat­ment.

“We should not do com­par­isons with oth­er tri­als, it’s not kosher,” Diab tells me at one point in our con­ver­sa­tion. “But of course we’re go­ing to do it.”

There’s been some in­tense con­tro­ver­sy over their chances with this IL-2 drug, which us­es pe­gy­la­tion tech to elim­i­nate the draw­backs of the orig­i­nal ther­a­py – Pro­leukin — that made it too tox­ic to use at full mea­sure, in turn lim­it­ing its ef­fi­ca­cy.

One like­ly take­down of the Nek­tar de­fense should come soon from Aaron Wed­lund, the ex-Ker­ris­dale an­a­lyst who wrote a lengthy di­a­tribe on NK­TR-214, which he con­sid­ers will make IL-2 the next IDO, an­oth­er drug class once wide­ly hailed as the next big thing in can­cer drug com­bos now bad­ly tar­nished fol­low­ing a cat­a­stroph­ic Phase III com­bo fail­ure with Keytru­da.

Bris­tol-My­ers en­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly bought in­to the next-gen IL-2 drug ap­proach as it’s been un­suc­cess­ful­ly de­fend­ing its PD-1/L1 crown against a hard-charg­ing Mer­ck, which has pushed Keytru­da and chemo com­bos in­to the fore­front of the lung can­cer mar­ket. IL-2, they said, would be the next log­i­cal step to PD-1 and CT­LA-4, with Yer­voy.

Any­thing that puts this drug back in the Pro­leukin cat­e­go­ry, with more IL-2 suc­ces­sors in the pipeline, won’t be wel­come by the de­vel­op­ers.

It’s im­por­tant to keep in mind that a bunch of short in­vestors had fun — and made mon­ey — pulling Nek­tar’s stock down from some stun­ning highs that it had en­joyed. Rais­ing doubts is good for spurring cor­rec­tions, and Nek­tar’s stock has tum­bled bad­ly. The ju­ry will re­main out, though, un­til the Phase III pro­gres­sion-free sur­vival da­ta comes due around the spring of 2020.

Un­til then, and maybe even af­ter, this de­bate will con­tin­ue to rage.

Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

Roivant par­lays a $450M chunk of eq­ui­ty in biotech buy­out, grab­bing a com­pu­ta­tion­al group to dri­ve dis­cov­ery work

New Roivant CEO Matt Gline has crafted an all-equity upfront deal to buy out a Boston-based biotech that has been toiling for several years now at building a supercomputing-based computational platform to design new drugs. And he’s adding it to the Erector set of science operations that are being built up to support their network of biotech subsidiaries with an eye to growing the pipeline in a play to create a new kind of pharma company.

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Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck takes a swing at the IL-2 puz­zle­box with a $1.85B play for buzzy Pan­dion and its au­toim­mune hope­fuls

When Roger Perlmutter bid farewell to Merck late last year, the drugmaker perhaps best known now for sales giant Keytruda signaled its intent to take a swing at early-stage novelty with the appointment of discovery head Dean Li. Now, Merck is signing a decent-sized check to bring an IL-2 moonshot into the fold.

Merck will shell out roughly $1.85 billion for Pandion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech hoping to gin up regulatory T cells (Tregs) to treat a range of autoimmune disorders, the drugmaker said Thursday.

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J&J ad­comm live blog: J&J faces ques­tions on old­er adults, asymp­to­matic in­fec­tion, long-term im­mu­ni­ty

The FDA adcomm has advanced to the free-for-all question stage of the hearing and, as they did for Moderna and Pfizer, committee members are raising questions about the lingering issues surrounding the vaccine.

In J&J’s case, one of those unknowns is a group of participants who appeared to respond worse to the vaccine: those over 60 with comorbidities. In that group, the vaccine was only 42% effective at stopping disease starting 28 days after vaccination.

Genen­tech plots $53M dis­cov­ery quest aimed at spark­ing a 'Holy moly' piv­ot in neu­ro R&D

Genentech has committed $53 million to back a 10-year quest aimed at going back to the drawing board to use new technology and fresh scientific insights to generate a pipeline of drugs for neurological diseases.

Roche’s big South San Francisco hub will mix it up with the scientists drawn together for the Weill Neurohub — formed in 2019 as a joint research partnership involving UCSF, Berkeley and the University of Washington — in an exploration of the field to develop new therapies for some of the toughest diseases in drug R&D: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, ALS and autism.

Am­gen, As­traZeneca speed to­ward fil­ing next-gen an­ti­body for asth­ma af­ter un­cork­ing full late-stage da­ta

On the hunt for a novel competitor to Sanofi and Regeneron’s Dupixent in severe asthma, Amgen and AstraZeneca posted “exciting” results from their next-gen antibody late last year. Now, the partners are showing their hands, and the results look good enough for approval.

Amgen and AstraZeneca’s tezepelumab plus standard of care cut the rate of severe asthma attacks by 56% at the one-year mark compared with SOC alone, according to full data from the Phase III NAVIGATOR study presented Friday at the virtual American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology meeting. And those significant results were consistent regardless of patients’ baseline eosinophil counts.

With dust set­tled on ac­tivist at­tack, Lau­rence Coop­er leaves Zio­pharm to a new board

Laurence Cooper has done his part.

In the five years since he left a tenured position at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center to become CEO of Boston-based Ziopharm, he’s steered the small-cap immunotherapy player through patient deaths in trials, clinical holds, short attacks and, most recently, an activist attack on the board.

So when the company has “fantastic news” like an IND clearance for a TCR T cell therapy program, he’s ready to pass on the baton.

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Doug Ingram (file photo)

Why not? Sarep­ta’s third Duchenne MD drug sails to ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval

Sarepta may be running into some trouble with its next-gen gene therapy approach to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But when it comes to antisense oligonucleotides, the well-trodden regulatory path is still leading straight to an accelerated approval for casimersen, now christened Amondys 45.

We just have to wait until 2024 to find out if it works.

Amondys 45’s approval was unceremonious, compared to its two older siblings. There was no controversy within the FDA over approving a drug based on a biomarker rather than clinical benefit, setting up a powerful precedent that still haunts acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock as biotech insiders weighed her potential permanent appointment; no drama like the FDA issuing a stunning rejection only to reverse its decision and hand out an OK four months later, which got more complicated after the scathing complete response letter was published; no anxious tea leaf reading or heated arguments from drug developers and patient advocates who were tired of having corticosteroids as their loved ones’ only (sometimes expensive) option.

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