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

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.