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.

As Nas­daq en­rolls the fi­nal batch of 2019 IPOs, how have the num­bers com­pared to past years?

IGM Biosciences’ upsized IPO haul, coming after SpringWorks’ sizable public debut, has revved up some momentum for the last rush of biotech IPOs in 2019.

With 39 new listings on the books and roughly two more months to go before winding down, Nasdaq’s head of healthcare listings Jordan Saxe sees the exchange marking 50 to 60 biopharma IPOs for the year.

“December 15 is usually the last possible day that companies will price,” he said, as companies get ready for business talks at the annual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in January.

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A fa­vorite in Alex­ion’s C-suite is leav­ing, and some mighty sur­prised an­a­lysts aren’t the least bit hap­py about it

Analysts hate to lose a biotech CFO they’ve come to trust and admire — especially if they’re being blindsided by a surprise exit.

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David Grainger [file photo]

'Dis­con­nect the bas­tard­s' — one biotech's plan to break can­cer cell­s' uni­fied de­fens­es

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are the current gladiators of cancer treatment, but they come with well-known limitations and side-effects. The emergence of immunotherapy — a ferocious new titan in oncologist’s toolbox — takes the brakes off the immune system to kill cancer cells with remarkable success in some cases, but the approach is not always effective. What makes certain forms of cancer so resilient? Scientists may have finally pieced together a tantalizing piece of the puzzle, and a new biotech is banking on a new approach to fill the gap.

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While No­var­tis ban­ish­es Zol­gens­ma scan­dal scars — Bio­gen goes on a Spin­raza 'of­fen­sive'

While Novartis painstakingly works to mop up the stench of the data manipulation scandal associated with its expensive gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) Zolgensma— rival Biogen is attempting to expand the use of its SMA therapy, Spinraza. 

The US drugmaker $BIIB secured US approval for Spinraza for use in the often fatal genetic disease in 2016. The approval covered a broad range of patients with infantile-onset (most likely to develop Type 1) SMA. 

Jason Kelly. Mike Blake/Reuters via Adobe

Eye­ing big ther­a­peu­tic push, Gink­go bags $290M to build a cell pro­gram­ming em­pire

Ginkgo Bioworks is on a roll. Days after publicizing a plan to nurture new startups via partnerships with accelerators Y Combinator and Petri, the Boston biotech says it has raised another $290 million for its cell programming platform to reach further and wider.

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UP­DAT­ED: Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi to un­veil bill for fed­er­al­ly ne­go­ti­at­ed drug prices

After months of buzz from both sides of the aisle, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will today introduce her plan to allow the federal government to negotiate prices for 250 prescription drugs, setting up a showdown with a pharmaceutical industry working overtime to prevent it.

The need to limit drug prices is a rare point of agreement between President Trump and Democrats, although the president has yet to comment on the proposal and will likely face pressure to back a more conservative option or no bill at all. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley is reportedly lobbying his fellow party members on a more modest proposal he negotiated with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden in July.

Jeff Kindler's Cen­trex­ion re­news bid to make pub­lic de­but

Jeffrey Kindler’s plan to take his biotech — which is developing a slate of non-opioid painkillers — public, is back on.

The Boston based company, led by former Pfizer $PFE chief Kindler, originally contemplated a $70 million to $80 million IPO last year— but eventually postponed that strategy. On Wednesday, the company revived its bid to make a public debut in a filing with the SEC — although no pricing details were disclosed.

Zachary Hornby. Boundless

'A fourth rev­o­lu­tion in can­cer ther­a­pies': ARCH-backed Bound­less Bio flash­es big check, makes big­ger promis­es in de­but

It was the cellular equivalent of opening your car door and finding an active, roaring engine in the driver seat.

Scientists learned strands of DNA could occasionally appear outside of its traditional home in the nucleus in the 1970s, when they appeared as little, innocuous circles on microscopes; inexplicable but apparently innate. But not until UC San Diego’s Paul Mischel published his first study in Science in 2014 did researchers realize these circles were not only active but potentially overactive and driving some cancer tumors’ superhuman growth.

Scott Gottlieb, AP Images

Scott Got­tlieb is once again join­ing a team that en­joyed good times at the FDA un­der his high-en­er­gy stint at the helm

Right after jumping on Michael Milken’s FasterCures board on Monday, the newly departed FDA commissioner is back today with news about another life sciences board post that gives him a ringside chair to cheer on a lead player in the real-world evidence movement — one with very close ties to the FDA.

Aetion is reporting this morning that Gottlieb is joining their board, a group that includes Mohamad Makhzoumi, a general partner at New Enterprise Associates, where Gottlieb returned after stepping out of his role at the FDA 2 years after he started.

Gottlieb — one of the best connected execs in biopharma — knows this company well. As head of FDA he championed the use of real-world evidence to help guide drug developers and the agency in gaining greater efficiencies, which helped set up Aetion as a high-profile player in the game.

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