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.

Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

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Covid-19 roundup: BAR­DA sup­ports Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed with big $628M con­tract to ser­vice Amer­i­ca's vac­cine pro­duc­tion needs

Another BARDA contract designed to service America’s Covid-19 vaccine needs has been deployed.

The White House-led initiative designed to bankroll development to bring a vaccine to the American public by this fall — Operation Warp Speed — has via BARDA handed a meaty contract to the maker of an FDA-licensed anthrax vaccine to open up its manufacturing apparatus to shore up production of Covid-19 vaccines.

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FDA de­lays de­ci­sion on No­var­tis’ po­ten­tial block­buster MS drug, wip­ing away pri­or­i­ty re­view

So much for a speedy review.

In February, Novartis announced that an application for their much-touted multiple sclerosis drug ofatumumab had been accepted and, with the drug company cashing in on one of their priority review vouchers, the agency was due for a decision by June.

But with June less than 48 hours old, Novartis announced the agency has extended their review, pushing back the timeline for approval or rejection to September. The Swiss pharma filed the application in December, meaning their new schedule will be nearly in line with the standard 10-month window period had they not used the priority voucher.

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Adam Keeney (NodThera)

As NL­RP3 play­ers head for first clin­i­cal face off, No­vo, Sanofi fu­el trans-At­lantic con­tender with $55M

In the relative short history of inflammasome research, Adam Keeney sees two time points marking major breakthroughs: The early 2000s, when the role of inflammasomes as a major innate immunity node was elucidated; and 2015, when Pfizer found out a compound it thought was targeting IL-1 actually blocks NLRP3. Keeney’s biotech, NodThera, was founded the year after alongside several others to create its own superior small molecule drugs.

Ken Frazier, AP Images

Why Mer­ck wait­ed, and what they now bring to the Covid-19 fight

Nicholas Kartsonis had been running clinical infectious disease research at Merck for almost 2 years when, in mid-January, he got a new assignment: searching the pharma giant’s vast libraries for something that could treat the novel coronavirus.

The outbreak was barely two weeks old when Kartsonis and a few dozen others got to work, first in small teams and then in a larger task force that sucked in more and more parts of the sprawling company as Covid-19 infected more and more of the globe. By late February, the group began formally searching for vaccine and antiviral candidates to license. Still, while other companies jumped out to announce their programs and, eventually and sometimes controversially, early glimpses at human data, Merck remained silent. They made only a brief announcement about a data collection partnership in April and mentioned vaguely a vaccine and antiviral search in their April 28 earnings call.

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Mark Genovese (Stanford via Twitter)

Gilead woos fil­go­tinib clin­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tor from Stan­ford to lead the charge on NASH, in­flam­ma­to­ry dis­eases

With an FDA OK for the use of filgotinib in rheumatoid arthritis expected to drop any day now, Gilead has recruited a new leader from academia to lead its foray into inflammatory diseases.

Mark Genovese — a longtime Stanford professor and most recently the clinical chief in the division of immunology and rheumatology — was the principal investigator in FINCH 2, one of three studies that supported Gilead’s NDA filing. In his new role as SVP, inflammation, he will oversee the clinical development of the entire portfolio.

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Stephen Isaacs, Aduro president and CEO (Aduro)

Once a high fly­er, a stag­ger­ing Aduro is auc­tion­ing off most of the pipeline as CEO Stephen Isaacs hands off the shell to new own­ers

After a drumbeat of failure, setbacks and reorganizations over the last few years, Aduro CEO Stephen Isaacs is handing over his largely gutted-out shell of a public company to another biotech company and putting up some questionable assets in a going-out-of-business sale.

Isaacs —who forged a string of high-profile Big Pharma deals along the way — has wrapped a 13-year run at the biotech with one program for kidney disease going to the new owners at Chinook Therapeutics. A host of once-heralded assets like their STING agonist program partnered with Novartis (which dumped their work on ADU-S100 after looking over weak clinical results), the Lilly-allied cGAS-STING inhibitor program and the anti-CD27 program out-licensed to Merck will all be posted for auction under a strategic review process.

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Fangliang Zhang (Imaginechina via AP Images)

The big mon­ey: Poised to make drug R&D his­to­ry, a Chi­na biotech un­veils uni­corn rac­ing am­bi­tions in a bid to raise $350M-plus on Nas­daq

Almost exactly three years after Shanghai-based Legend came out of nowhere to steal the show at ASCO with jaw-dropping data on their BCMA-targeted CAR-T for multiple myeloma, the little player with Big Pharma connections is taking a giant step toward making it big on Wall Street. And this time they want to seal the deal on a global rep after staking out a unicorn valuation in what’s turned out to be a bull market for biotech IPOs — in the middle of a pandemic.

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