The top win­ners and losers on AS­CO ab­stract night: Loxo, Blue­print, Jounce, Mer­ck KGaA and more

Let the joust­ing be­gin.

The big ab­stract drop ahead of AS­CO — the an­nu­al Olympics of can­cer R&D — pro­vid­ed some ear­ly, quick snap­shots that helped dri­ve stocks up or down, or sim­ply pro­vid­ed a chance to tout some po­ten­tial in a hot­ly con­test­ed field.

As more and more bio­phar­ma mon­ey has been in­vest­ed in the on­col­o­gy field in re­cent years, AS­CO has been at­tract­ing a big­ger range of en­trants, and ab­stract night will help de­ter­mine who comes out on top dur­ing the melee ahead. I’ve picked out a few of the most no­tice­able ab­stracts, which you can see be­low.

Loxo takes an­oth­er round in its bruis­ing, toe-to-toe fight with Blue­print

Josh Bilenker

Loxo On­col­o­gy $LOXO was the big win­ner Wednes­day night as in­vestors be­gan to pick through a pile of AS­CO ab­stracts to see what gems could be culled from the num­bers.

The biotech’s stock soared 18% overnight as in­vestors spot­light­ed a 69% over­all re­sponse rate among 32 evalu­able RET-fu­sion pos­i­tive pa­tients tak­ing LOXO-292. Loxo’s claim to fame is that it de­vel­ops can­cer drugs that tar­get small, ge­net­i­cal­ly de­fined pa­tient groups with an ag­nos­tic ap­proach to tu­mor types. Reg­u­la­tors at the FDA have been en­thu­si­as­tic about this emerg­ing field, which bodes well for Loxo. And they backed that en­thu­si­asm up with da­ta demon­strat­ing a 65% re­sponse rate in NSCLC and 83% for pap­il­lary thy­roid can­cer. 84% (27/32) of the pa­tients had ra­di­ograph­ic tu­mor re­duc­tion rang­ing from 19% to 67%.

That’s good, but it may well get bet­ter. Loxo CEO Josh Bilenker has flagged that since the Jan­u­ary cut­off date for the ab­stract the da­ta are even bet­ter now, which we’ll see at AS­CO. Loxo helped stoke the en­thu­si­asm with a note high­light­ing that LOXO-292 has been se­lect­ed for best of show at AS­CO, which will keep the com­pa­ny in the spot­light.

Can­cer R&D, though, is the ul­ti­mate blood sport in biotech. And when some­thing goes up, it’s of­ten at the ex­pense of a ri­val. In this case, that’s Blue­print Med­i­cines — again — which has al­ready felt the sting of a neg­a­tive com­par­i­son with Loxo.

Blue­print Med­i­cines $BPMC has been ad­vanc­ing BLU-667, which has been at­tract­ing warm re­views by an­a­lysts — un­less they start com­par­ing it to the ri­val. That side-by-side com­par­i­son knocked their stock back at AACR, and it did it again last night as the num­bers once again fa­vored Loxo. Shares are down about 8% in pre-mar­ket trad­ing Thurs­day.

No­var­tis vs Gilead/Kite: Is Kym­ri­ah bet­ter and safer than Yescar­ta?

Few ri­val­ries have been as in­tense as the show­down be­tween these two pi­o­neers in the CAR-T field. No­var­tis’ Kym­ri­ah $NVS still has to over­come a nag­ging is­sue with one-time man­u­fac­tur­ing is­sues, but Gilead’s Yescar­ta $GILD is now be­ing com­pared with its ri­val, and at first blush may have some ex­plain­ing to do. 

A group in Bei­jing ran a small com­par­i­son study of the two types of CAR-Ts — which use the 4-1BB and CD28 co-stim­u­la­to­ry sig­nal­ing do­mains — for CD19-pos­i­tive B-cell acute lym­phoblas­tic leukemia and found that the Kym­ri­ah/4-1BB ap­proach ap­pears to have a dis­tinct set of ad­van­tages. 

In that 4-1BB arm there was a 100% over­all ob­jec­tive re­sponse rate, com­pared to 89% in the CD28 arm. In ad­di­tion, and more im­por­tant­ly, all 5 of the pa­tients suf­fer­ing from se­ri­ous Grade 3 or 4 cy­tokine re­lease syn­drome were in the CD28/Yescar­ta group. This ar­gu­ment has a long way to run, and Gilead won’t con­cede an inch of the race. But the com­par­isons have just be­gun.

On Mon­day, Gilead con­tact­ed us to of­fer this state­ment:

It is im­por­tant to note that Yescar­ta was not eval­u­at­ed in this study. The ab­stract dis­cuss­es da­ta from a study eval­u­at­ing oth­er CAR T prod­ucts us­ing 4-1BB and CD28 co-stim­u­la­to­ry sig­nal­ing do­mains, re­spec­tive­ly. Im­por­tant­ly, Yescar­ta is en­gi­neered us­ing Kite’s man­u­fac­tur­ing process. The CD28 CAR T eval­u­at­ed in this tri­al was not man­u­fac­tured by Kite and there have been no head-to-head stud­ies of Yescar­ta com­pared to ti­s­agen­le­cleu­cel.

Ever­core ISI an­a­lyst Umer Raf­fat this morn­ing called the re­sults of this study provoca­tive, but wants to see the de­tails. So do I.

Jounce shares plunge on the lat­est da­ta cut for JTX-2011

Eliz­a­beth Tre­hu

The biggest los­er overnight was Jounce Ther­a­peu­tics $JNCE, which took a nasty hit af­ter post­ing their up­date on their lead ther­a­py — JTX-2011. As a monother­a­py, 1 out of 7 pa­tients with gas­tric can­cer re­spond­ed, com­pared to 2 out of 19 who got the com­bo with Op­di­vo — an 11% re­sponse rate. The rate wasn’t much bet­ter in triple-neg­a­tive breast can­cer. 

In a re­lease, re­searchers hit the theme that these were heav­i­ly pre­treat­ed pa­tients, but on­look­ers were in a can­tan­ker­ous mood and didn’t like the un­der­whelm­ing num­bers. Shares plunged 26% and Wells Far­go down­grad­ed the stock.

Cel­gene struck a ma­jor deal to col­lab­o­rate with Jounce on this drug, and that wasn’t ig­nored this morn­ing.

“The pre­lim­i­nary da­ta from pa­tients across mul­ti­ple sol­id tu­mor types en­rolled in the ICON­IC tri­al show that JTX-2011 is well-tol­er­at­ed alone and in com­bi­na­tion with nivolum­ab and has demon­strat­ed ev­i­dence of bi­o­log­ic ac­tiv­i­ty and tu­mor re­duc­tions in heav­i­ly pre-treat­ed pa­tients who have failed all avail­able ther­a­pies. In ad­di­tion, a po­ten­tial sur­ro­gate bio­mark­er of re­sponse has been iden­ti­fied that may help to guide JTX-2011 de­vel­op­ment,” said Eliz­a­beth Tre­hu, chief med­ical of­fi­cer of Jounce Ther­a­peu­tics.

Nek­tar sees a big ero­sion in re­sponse rates for close­ly-watched I/O star NK­TR-214

Nek­tar $NK­TR scored one of the biggest deals in bio­phar­ma so far this year when Bris­tol-My­ers came in with a $3.6 bil­lion deal to part­ner on NK­TR-214. That part­ner­ship was an­nounced in the wake of the first glimpse of how ef­fec­tive a pair­ing of their drug could be with Op­di­vo, with 63% of a small group of ad­vanced melanoma pa­tients re­spond­ing to first-line ther­a­py. But in Nek­tar’s up­date this week re­searchers note that the re­sponse rate in the bas­ket study showed a re­duced melanoma im­pact, with a 52% re­sponse rate.

Re­nal cell car­ci­no­ma al­so dropped, falling to 54%, down from 71% re­port­ed in the com­pa­ny’s Q4 call in ear­ly March.

That’s by no means the kiss of death. Re­sponse rates tend to de­cline over time. But an­a­lysts will be watch­ing these num­bers close­ly to see just how far they drop for a drug that is now front and cen­ter in the late-stage on­col­o­gy pipeline. The stock is down 3% in pre-mar­ket trad­ing, with the ju­ry still out on this promis­ing ther­a­py.

Mer­ck KGaA plans to shine a light on its can­cer pipeline at AS­CO — with Pfiz­er jump­ing in

Mer­ck KGaA will be back at AS­CO look­ing to earn some re­spect for its can­cer drug pipeline. So far the bulk of the at­ten­tion has gone to Baven­cio, its PD-L1 check­point in­hibitor part­nered with Pfiz­er, which is fight­ing an up­hill bat­tle to gain mar­ket share against the lead­ers in the field. But the Ger­man Mer­ck has a pipeline in on­col­o­gy, and they will do their best to high­light their chances on a range of ther­a­pies in Chica­go.

Its c-Met re­cep­tor ty­ro­sine ki­nase in­hibitor tepo­tinib has earned some ku­dos from Bern­stein. And re­searchers post­ed da­ta on 15 pa­tients with ad­vanced non-small cell lung can­cer har­bor­ing MET ex­on 14 skip­ping mu­ta­tions, with 60% demon­strat­ing a con­firmed par­tial re­sponse. An­a­lysts be­lieve this drug could hit $650 mil­lion in sales by 2030 — not a block­buster but a sol­id suc­cess, which the com­pa­ny bad­ly needs af­ter a long drought in clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment suc­cess­es.

On the com­bo front, where all the PD-1/PD-L1 play­ers are fo­cus­ing on in a va­ri­ety of ways, Mer­ck KGaA tout­ed their M7824, a TGF-ß trap/an­ti-PD-L1 bi-func­tion­al im­munother­a­py fu­sion pro­tein. High PD-L1 ex­press­ing pa­tients ex­hib­it­ed an ORR of 71.4%.

The next big step on Baven­cio lies in com­bo ther­a­pies, and there Mer­ck KGaA says it gained some ear­ly-stage ev­i­dence to back up a com­bi­na­tion of the check­point with lor­la­tinib in non-small cell lung can­cer — a key com­pet­i­tive front for these play­ers. And their com­bo came out way ahead in the JAVELIN Lung 101 study, which com­pared their check­point with Xalko­ri (crizo­tinib) and the lor­la­tinib match-up. Lor­la­tinib — a drug Pfiz­er has high hopes for — came out way ahead. From the ab­stract:

The con­firmed ob­jec­tive re­sponse rate with A+C in ALK− pts was 16.7% (95% CI, 2.1-48.4; par­tial re­sponse [PR] in 2 pts), and with A+L in ALK+ pts was 46.4% (95% CI, 27.5-66.1; PR in 12 pts; com­plete re­sponse in 1 pt).


Im­age: Poster ses­sion at AS­CO 2017. AS­CO

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.

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.

Tal Zaks, Moderna CMO (AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi, via still image from video)

CMO Tal Zaks bids Mod­er­na a sur­prise adieu as biotech projects $18.4B in rev­enue, plots post-Covid ex­pan­sion

How do you exit a company after six years in style? Developing one of the most lucrative and life-saving products in pharma history is probably not the worst way to go.

Tal Zaks, Moderna’s CMO since 2015, will leave the mRNA biotech in September, the biotech disclosed in their annual report this morning. The company has already retained the recruitment firm Russell Reynolds to find a replacement.

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Steve Cutler, Icon CEO (Icon)

In the biggest CRO takeover in years, Icon doles out $12B for PRA Health Sci­ences to fo­cus on de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal work

Contract research M&A had a healthy run in recent years before recently petering out. But with the market ripe for a big buyout and the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizing the importance of decentralized trials, Wednesday saw a tectonic shift in the CRO world.

Icon, the Dublin-based CRO, will acquire PRA Health Sciences for $12 billion in a move that will shake up the highest rungs of a fragmented market. The merger would combine the 5th- and 6th-largest CROs by 2020 revenue, according to Icon, and the merger will set the newco up to be the second-largest global CRO behind only IQVIA.

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Tom Barnes (Orna)

The mR­NA era is here. MPM be­lieves the fu­ture be­longs to oR­NA — and Big Phar­ma wants a seat at the ta­ble

If the ultra-fast clinical development of Covid-19 vaccines opened the world’s eyes to the promises of messenger RNA, the subsequent delays in supply offered a crash course on the ultra-complex process of producing them. Even before the formulation and fill-finish steps, mRNA is the precious end product from an arduous journey involving enzyme-aided transcription, modification and purification.

For Bristol Myers Squibb, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, Gilead’s Kite and Astellas, it’s time to rethink the way therapeutic RNA is engineered.

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Glax­o­SmithK­line re­thinks strat­e­gy for Covid-19 an­ti­body — not the Vir ones — af­ter tri­al flop. Is there hope in high-risk pa­tients?

In the search for a better Covid-19 therapeutic, GlaxoSmithKline and Vir have partnered up on two antibodies they hope have a chance. GSK is also testing its own in-house antibody, and early results may have shut the door on its widespread use.

A combination of GSK’s monoclonal antibody otilimab plus standard of care couldn’t best standard of care alone in preventing death and respiratory failure in hospitalized Covid-19 patients after 28 days, according to data from the Phase IIa OSCAR study unveiled Thursday.

S&P ex­pects steady ero­sion in Big Phar­ma's cred­it pro­file in 2021 as new M&A deals roll in — but don't un­der­es­ti­mate their un­der­ly­ing strength

S&P Global has taken a look at the dominant forces shaping the pharma market and come to the conclusion that there will be more downgrades than upgrades in 2021 — the 8th straight year of steady decline.

But it’s not all bad news. Some things are looking up, and there’s still plenty of money to be made in an industry that enjoys a 30% to 40% profit margin, once you factor in steep R&D expenses.

Mod­er­na's Stéphane Ban­cel plans to dou­ble down on vac­cine pro­duc­tion, new vari­ants as mR­NA rules in pan­dem­ic fight

Stéphane Bancel thought he’d be sleeping more by now.

The 48-year-old Moderna CEO figured that by 2021 he’d have his vaccine through the clinic, authorized, and in mass production — that the hard part would be over. Instead, he’s still working Saturdays and Sundays, talking with his lab and manufacturing teams and fielding calls with two to three world leaders a day to answer their concerns about supply and emerging new variants.

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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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