Wel­come Imfinzi: As­traZeneca crash­es the check­point par­ty late with a green light for dur­val­um­ab

And then there were 5.

The FDA hand­ed out its lat­est ap­proval for a PD-L1 check­point in­hibitor on Mon­day af­ter­noon, giv­ing a green light to As­traZeneca to start sell­ing dur­val­um­ab as Imfinzi as a sec­ond-line ther­a­py for metasta­t­ic urothe­lial car­ci­no­ma.

Pas­cal So­ri­ot

The reg­u­la­to­ry OK comes in the wake of ap­provals for Mer­ck, Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb, Roche/Genen­tech and Pfiz­er/Mer­ck KGaA. The bi­ol­o­gy of these new check­point drugs is well un­der­stood now, and the FDA is­sued its ap­proval af­ter a rel­a­tive­ly small, sin­gle-arm study.

Reg­u­la­tors waved this one through af­ter giv­ing dur­val­um­ab a break­through drug des­ig­na­tion and pri­or­i­ty re­view, even though its the third ap­proval for a check­point ther­a­py in blad­der can­cer.

Dur­val­um­ab’s longterm suc­cess is cru­cial to the fu­ture of As­traZeneca and CEO Pas­cal So­ri­ot. Billed as a block­buster-to-be, fol­low­ing a com­mer­cial trail al­ready clear­ly laid out, the big show­down for As­traZeneca comes lat­er in the year, when it rolls out late-stage da­ta on a com­bi­na­tion of its check­point com­bo in its MYS­TIC study, which match­es dur­val­um­ab with treme­li­mum­ab, a CT­LA-4 sim­i­lar to Yer­voy, for lung can­cer.

The ju­ry is still out, though, on how well a CT­LA-4 drug — with all its at­ten­dant tox­i­c­i­ty — will do in this field. That’s one rea­son why Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb re­cent­ly inked a deal with Cy­tomX on a next-gen CT­LA-4 that might prove far bet­ter for pa­tients.

Sea­mus Fer­nan­dez at Leerink not­ed some mod­est ex­pec­ta­tions on this first ap­proval. The up­side lies fur­ther down the road.

Al­though this in­di­ca­tion rep­re­sents a rel­a­tive­ly small op­por­tu­ni­ty for AZN (we fore­cast Imfinzi cap­tur­ing 10% of our es­ti­mat­ed ~$2.3B WW blad­der can­cer mar­ket), the ap­proval will al­low the agent to be­come more fa­mil­iar with on­col­o­gists and should help fa­cil­i­tate fu­ture sBLAs for drug. The ma­jor in­di­ca­tion for Imfinzi re­mains first-line (1L) non-small cell lung can­cer (NSCLC) and we await top-line da­ta from the Phase 3 MYS­TIC tri­al in com­bi­na­tion with treme­li­mum­ab (an­ti-CT­LA-4) ex­pect­ed in mid-2017.

As­traZeneca, mean­while, raised a red flag last week when it de­layed its third-line read­out in the ARC­TIC study of the duo, spurring some sus­pi­cions that it was on track to a trou­bling fail­ure that would have raised se­ri­ous doubts about its fu­ture in the field.

The oth­er ques­tion that many of us have is how many of these PD-1/PD-L1 check­points can be ap­proved be­fore they start slic­ing and dic­ing this mar­ket in­to ever small­er bites. A range of sec­ond-wave check­points are in de­vel­op­ment now, with every­one that’s fi­nanced well enough and in­ter­est­ed in it go­ing af­ter one of their own.

That group in­cludes In­cyte, which has been part­ner­ing with the main­stream check­points in nonex­clu­sive arrange­ments. And the main play­ers, like Mer­ck and Bris­tol-My­ers, are al­ready well along with their own com­bi­na­tion tri­als. Hun­dreds of them.

The ap­proval, though, marks a big win for As­traZeneca, which has made sig­nif­i­cant progress on the on­col­o­gy front in the last few years. They had to have this one to re­main a cred­i­ble ri­val. And they got it.

The FDA has been on a drug ap­proval spree over the last few days. This is the fifth OK for a new chem­i­cal en­ti­ty in the last three work­ing days, bring­ing the year-to-date to­tal to 19. Last year, which saw a big dip in ap­provals, the FDA ap­proved a to­tal of 22 new drugs.

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

The End­points 11: They've got mad mon­ey and huge am­bi­tions. It's time to go big or go home

These days, selecting a group of private biotechs for the Endpoints 11 spotlight begins with a sprint to get ahead of IPOs and the M&A teams at Big Pharma. I’ve had a couple of faceplants earlier this year, watching some of the biotechs on my short list choose a quick leap onto Nasdaq or into the arms of a buyer.

Vividion, you would have been a great pick for the Endpoints 11. I’m sorry I missed you.

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Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis Gene Ther­a­pies? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1,500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

FDA+ roundup: Bs­U­FA III ready for show­time, court tells FDA to re-work com­pound­ing plan, new guid­ance up­dates and more

The FDA has now spelled out what exactly will be included in the third iteration of Biosimilar User Fee Act (BsUFA) from 2023 through 2027, which similarly to the prescription drug deal, sets fees that industry has to pay for submitting applications, in exchange for firm timelines that the agency must meet.

This latest deal includes several sweeteners for the biosimilar industry, which has yet to make great strides in the US market, with shorter review timelines for safety labeling updates and updates to add or remove an indication that does not contain efficacy data.

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Jean Bennett (Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP Images)

Lux­tur­na in­ven­tor Jean Ben­nett starts a new gene ther­a­py com­pa­ny to tack­le rare dis­eases left be­hind by phar­ma, VCs

A few years ago Jean Bennett found herself in a surprising place for a woman who invented the first gene therapy ever approved in the United States: No one, it seemed, wanted her work.

Bennett, who designed and co-developed Luxturna, approved in 2018 for a rare form of blindness, had kept building new gene therapies for eye diseases at her University of Pennsylvania lab. But although the results in animals looked promising, pharma companies and investors kept turning down the pedigreed ophthalmology professor.

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David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

Maureen Hillenmeyer, Hexagon Bio CEO

Hexa­gon Bio rais­es $61M to con­tin­ue ef­forts to turn fun­gi in­to drugs

A year after raising a $47 million launch round, the fungi-loving drug hunters at Hexagon Bio have more than doubled their coffers.

Hexagon announced today that it raised another $61 million for its efforts to design cancer and infectious disease drugs based on insights mined from the DNA in millions of species of fungi. The new financing brings Hexagon’s committed funding to over $108 million.