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

Con­quer­ing a silent killer: HDV and Eiger Bio­Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals

Hepatitis delta, also known as hepatitis D, is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) that results in the most severe form of human viral hepatitis for which there is no approved therapy.

HDV is a single-stranded, circular RNA virus that requires the envelope protein (HBsAg) of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) for its own assembly. As a result, hepatitis delta virus (HDV) infection occurs only as a co-infection in individuals infected with HBV. However, HDV/HBV co-infections lead to more serious liver disease than HBV infection alone. HDV is associated with faster progression to liver fibrosis (progressing to cirrhosis in about 80% of individuals in 5-10 years), increased risk of liver cancer, and early decompensated cirrhosis and liver failure.
HDV is the most severe form of viral hepatitis with no approved treatment.
Approved nucleos(t)ide treatments for HBV only suppress HBV DNA, do not appreciably impact HBsAg and have no impact on HDV. Investigational agents in development for HBV target multiple new mechanisms. Aspirations are high, but a functional cure for HBV has not been achieved nor is one anticipated in the forseeable future. Without clearance of HBsAg, anti-HBV investigational treatments are not expected to impact the deadly course of HDV infection anytime soon.

No­var­tis is ax­ing 150 ear­ly dis­cov­ery jobs as CNI­BR shifts fo­cus to the de­vel­op­ment side of R&D

Novartis is axing some 150 early discover jobs in Shanghai as it swells its staff on the drug development side of the equation in China. And the company is concurrently beefing up its investment in China’s fast-growing biotech sector with a plan to add to its investments in local VCs.

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Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during the Nevada Democrats' "First in the West" event at Bellagio Resort & Casino on November 17, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada (Getty Images)

Eliz­a­beth War­ren pro­pos­es us­ing com­pul­so­ry li­cens­ing, an­titrust ac­tions to break bio­phar­ma’s con­trol of drug pric­ing — and here are the block­busters she’s tar­get­ing first

Nancy Pelosi’s drug pricing bill may have sparked some industrial strength headaches on the money side of biopharma, but Elizabeth Warren seems determined to become biopharma’s Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Warren, one of the top-ranked candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination backing Medicare for all, is circulating a new plan that promises to break the industry’s grip on drug prices — and she has some very specific examples of how she would do it.
The Warren plan would rely on the federal government’s compulsory licensing powers to seize the IP of blockbuster drugs like Truvada and Harvoni to provide them at a fraction of what Gilead sells them for in the US. And she would throw some antitrust actions in as needed to rein in the price of Humira, AbbVie’s cash cow that continues to dominate the list of the most profitable therapeutics on the market.
Notably, she plans to rely on the powers already vested in the federal government, rather than suggest remedies that would require the assent of a deeply divided Congress.
In addition to the blockbusters on the list, Warren sends a clear signal that the same tactics would be used to beef up the supply of cheap antibiotics, as needed. And the same action could befall any other therapy patients can’t afford.

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Mer­ck’s $1B cash gam­ble pays off with a sur­pris­ing PhI­II car­dio suc­cess for Bay­er’s heart drug veri­ciguat

More than 3 years after Merck stepped up and paid $1 billion in cold, hard cash to gain the US commercial rights to Bayer’s high-risk heart drug vericiguat in a broad-ranging cardio alliance, the partners say their Phase III study has come through with promising data and a date with regulators.
We don’t have the data, and won’t until they put it out at an upcoming scientific session, but Merck touted the results, saying that their big Phase III VICTORIA study hit the primary endpoint  — with vericiguat combined with available therapies reducing “the risk of the composite endpoint of heart failure hospitalization or cardiovascular death in patients with worsening chronic heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF) compared to placebo when given in combination with available heart failure therapies.”
Depending on the hard data, and how it breaks out with the combinations used, this drug could pose a threat to Novartis’ blockbuster drug Entresto, currently at $1.6 billion while analysts expect peak sales to hit $4 billion.
The drug is a soluble guanylate cyclase (sGC) stimulator, which Bayer and Merck have had high hopes for. Evidently, so did cardiologists. Cowen’s last analysis set potential sales at $400 million in 2024, but that number could go up significantly now.
Cowen’s Steve Scala noted this morning:
Vericiguat could be a lucrative product for Merck, and one with potentially under-appreciated value. At Cowen’s Therapeutics Conference in September 2019, 80% of specialists anticipated a positive result from VICTORIA whereas only 51% of investors shared this optimism.
Investigators recruited more than 5,000 patients at more than 600 centers in 42 countries for this study — one of the most expensive propositions in R&D. Millions of people in the US suffer from heart failure with reduced ejection fraction when the failing heart fails to contract properly to eject blood into the system. Bayer holds ex-US rights to the drug and also stands to earn cash from the $1.1 billion in milestones Merck agreed on for their collaboration.
Remarkably, the drug was pushed into Phase III despite failing the mid-stage trial — though investigators flagged a success at the high dose of 10 mg. In VICTORIA, researchers started patients at 2.5 mg and then titrated up to 5 and then 10 mg.

Alk­er­mes forges $950M biotech buy­out deal in a bold bet on an ear­ly-stage CNS drug plat­form

Alkermes $ALKS is investing $100 million cash and committing up to $850 million more in milestones in a big wager on a very early-stage CNS discovery platform. And the biotech is adding $20 million more to fund next year’s new research work on the platform it’s acquiring in today’s buyout with an eye to expanding the research work in oncology.

The biotech, helmed by Richard Pops, is buying Rodin Therapeutics, which had focused early on Alzheimer’s disease. Pops’ buyout, though, isn’t focused solely on the most troublesome sector in pharma R&D.

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Left to right: Arthur Pappas, Robert Nelsen, Peter Kolchinsky Doug Cole and David Beier

In rare po­lit­i­cal for­ay, top biotech in­vestors urge Con­gress to re­ject drug pric­ing bill

Thirteen of the top biotech venture capitalists in the country wrote a letter last week warning lawmakers that if Congress passes a drug pricing bill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has put before lawmakers, they won’t be able to invest in biomedical research at their current rate, and patients will suffer.

“If policies such as those included within H.R. 3, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, are passed, our ability to continue to invest in future biomedical innovation will be severely constrained, thus crushing the hopes of millions of patient waiting for the next breakthroughs to treat or cure their cancers, rare genetic diseases, Alzheimer’s, or other serious and life-threatening conditions,” they wrote in a letter addressed to the highest-ranking Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate and acquired by Endpoints News. 

Dicer­na scores broad, 'rest of liv­er' deal with No­vo Nordisk, bag­ging $225M in cash to hit some 30 tar­gets with RNAi plat­form

Turns out Dicerna wasn’t done with deals yet after locking in $200 million upfront from Roche for a hepatitis B cocktail two weeks ago.

Novo Nordisk has signed on as the latest partner to its GalXC RNAi platform, handing over $175 million in cash to claim any and all targets of interest in liver-related cardio-metabolic diseases that are not already reserved in previous pacts. The Danish drugmaker — which has signaled its interest to expand considerably beyond its core diabetes franchise into areas like NASH — is also purchasing $50 million worth of Dicerna’s equity at a 25% premium of $21.93 per share. More research payments and milestones extending to the billions are on the line.

Gene ther­a­py wins the in­side track at EMA; PPD files for IPO

→ Gene therapy maker Orchard Therapeutics has been granted an accelerated assessment for OTL-200 by the EMA’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP). The gene therapy — in development in partnership with the San Raffaele-Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy (SR-Tiget) in Milan, Italy — being used towards the treatment of metachromatic leukodystrophy.

→ Pharmaceutical Product Development has announced that its parent company, PPD, Inc has submitted a draft to the SEC relating to the proposal of an IPO of the parent company’s common stock. Number of shares and price range have not yet been determined.

Pfiz­er gets biosim­i­lar ap­proved for Hu­mi­ra, set­ting up com­pe­ti­tion — in 2023

In the story lawmakers and drug pricing reform advocates have told about the drug industry, there are perhaps few greater villains than Humira and its maker AbbVie.

Between 2012 and 2018, AbbVie upped the drug’s annual after-rebates cost from $19,000 to $38,000 in the US, with sticker prices now over $60,000 per year — increases that led to accusations of price gouging, most recently from Democratic presidential frontrunner Elizabeth Warren.