Is Novartis building a viable business model for adoptive immunotherapy for cancer?


Tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) in a colorectal carcinoma. Source: Nephron.

On April 27, 2011 we published an article on this blog entitled “Adoptive immunotherapy for metastatic melanoma?” This blog post, which was in part based on an article in the April 2011 issue of The Scientist, described a treatment for metastatic melanoma known as adoptive cell transfer (ACT), or adoptive immunotherapy. ACT is the only type of therapy that has resulted in high percentages of durable compete responses in metastatic melanoma. A durable complete response, which is tantamount to a cure, is the real desire of every cancer patient, and of their loved ones, and of caring physicians who treat them.

In ACT, a physician/researcher extracts a patient’s antigen-specific immune cells, which are usually found in tumor tissue. Such cells are known as “tumor infiltrating lymphocytes” (TILs). He or she then expands the numbers of the antitumor T lymphocytes in cell culture, using the T-cell growth factor, IL-2. The physician/researcher then infuses the cells, plus IL-2, intravenously into the patient. The infused T cells traffic to tumors and can mediate their destruction. Prior to TIL infusion, the patient may have his or her immune system temporarily ablated via “preparative lymphodepletion” with chemotherapy and sometimes also total-body irradiation. The preparative lymphodepletion treatment is associated with enhanced persistence of the transferred TILs.

In a clinical study of ACT published in 2011, the treatment resulted in the disappearance of all tumors in 20/93 patients (21.5%) with advanced metastatic melanoma. For 19 of these 20 patients (95%), the complete responses have been durable and long-lasting, in some cases lasting for over 7 years. (See also the Faculty of 1000 evaluation.)

Research on the mechanistic basis of adoptive immunotherapy, as well as on means to improve ACT technologies, is ongoing, so there is the potential to improve the durable complete response rate further. We featured a December 2012 Nature cancer immunotherapy review article that included a discussion of ways to improve ACT in the 2011 end-of-year article on our Biopharmconsortium Blog.

Despite the fact that ACT is the only type of therapy that has resulted in high percentages of durable compete responses in metastatic melanoma, it is not widely available. ACT is only available in a small number of cancer canters worldwide, and there has been little commercial interest in developing ACT.

Adoptive immunotherapies are still considered experimental, are not FDA-approved, and are not covered by third party payers. Thus only a handful of locations can bear the financial burden of administering adoptive immunotherapy. If a cancer center has a cell production facility with the required staff, the cost of producing a single dose of T-cells for adoptive transfer is approximately $20,000. ACT treatment also entails factoring in the cost of hospitalization. However, most patients only require a single dose.

The cost of ACT is, however, much lower than a full course of other immunotherapies, such as the dendritic cell vaccine Provenge (which is not indicated for melanoma) or the immunotheraputic MAb drug ipilimumab, both of which cost approximately $120,000. The total cost of a 6-month treatment with the targeted kinase drug vemurafenib is $56,400. None of these treatments result in durable complete responses, except in a very small number of patients.

The main problem with increasing the availability of ACT is the lack of a viable business model for its commercialization. Adoptive immunotherapies lack a clearly defined claim to intellectual property (IP), since the patient’s own cells are not a “drug” to be patented. It would be difficult for a private company to pursue clinical trials for FDA approval and commercialization of ACT. To conduct such trials, a company would need to build a specialized cell processing and treatment facility, with a highly trained and competent staff. If the therapies cannot be protected as IP, and would therefore not be considered proprietary, it would not be worth the effort and expense to commercialize them.

The Novartis/Penn agreement

Now comes an agreement (announced on August 6, 2012) between Novartis and the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) aimed at commercializing adoptive cellular immunotherapy.

The agreement is based on one of the improvements to ACT discussed in the December 2011 Nature cancer immunotherapy review, in which autologous T cells isolated from patient blood (not from tumors) are engineered with retroviral vectors carrying chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). This technology allows physician researchers to extend ACT beyond patients from whom TILs can be isolated and expanded. It also enables them to extend ACT beyond melanoma to include other types of solid tumors and leukemias and lymphomas. Unlike TILs, CAR-bearing T cells do not recognize surface antigens on tumor cells [presented by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins] via their T-cell receptors. They instead recognize surface proteins on tumor cells via the affinity domain on the engineered CAR. This also expands the kinds of tumor cells that can be recognized, as compared to TILs.

In the Penn studies, led by David L. Porter, M.D. at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, the researchers used this technology to treat patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). They designed a lentiviral vector expressing a chimeric antigen receptor with specificity for the B-cell antigen CD19, coupled with the T cell costimulatory receptor CD137 and CD3-zeta (a signal-transduction component of the T-cell antigen receptor) signaling domains. They used this vector to engineer autologous T cells, and infused the engineered cells into the patient after preparative lymphodepletion with chemotherapy. In a pilot study with one patient with refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the infused cells exhibited in vivo expansion and anti-leukemia activity. The treatment resulted in complete remission, which was ongoing 10 months after initiation.

In a later study, the researchers treated three more patients with autologous engineered CAR T cells. The T cells expanded over 1000-fold in vivo, trafficked to bone marrow, and continued to express CARs at high levels for at least six months. The CAR T-cells showed anti-leukemia activity, with each engineered T cell eliminating approximately 1000 CLL cells. A CD19-specific immune response was demonstrated in the blood and bone marrow of two of three patients; these patents showed complete remission. Some of the cells in these patients persisted as memory CAR T cells and retained anti-CD19 effector activity. These results suggested that this technology has the potential to effectively treat B cell malignancies, and to induce durable complete remissions in at least a portion of patients.

As reported in August 2012, of the three patients who showed positive results with the anti-CD19 immunotherapy, two were still in complete remission over a year into the CART-19 trial, and the third patient maintained partial remission for more than seven months. An immune deficiency resulting from the treatment known as hypogammaglobulinemia, an expected chronic toxic effect of anti-B cell therapy, was corrected with infusions of intravenous immune globulin. Patients were also treated for symptoms associated with tumor lysis syndrome, an effect of tumor breakdown.

Under the agreement, Novartis acquired exclusive rights from Penn to CART-19, the investigational CAR immunotherapy that was the focus of the studies discussed earlier. The target of CART-19, CD19, is associated with several B-cell malignancies, including CLL, B-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia and diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Novartis expects to initiate a Phase II clinical trial with CART-19 in collaboration with Penn during the fourth quarter of 2012.

To facilitate the discovery and development of additional types of CAR immunotherapy, Novartis and Penn will build the Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies (CACT) at Penn. This center will be established specifically to develop and manufacture adoptive T-cell immunotherapies under the research collaboration between Penn and Novartis.

Penn also granted Novartis an exclusive worldwide license to CARs developed through the collaboration for all indications, in addition to CART-19. In return, Novartis will provide an up-front payment, research funding, funding for the establishment of the CACT and milestone payments for the achievement of certain clinical, regulatory and commercial milestones as well as and royalties on any sales.

Business implications of the Novartis/Penn agreement

The feasibility of developing and commercializing CAR T-cell-based immunotherapy is based on the ability of Penn to patent and license its CAR technology. Such an approach in principle would apply to immunotherapies based on other types of engineered T cells, such as those engineered with retroviral vectors carrying cloned T-cell receptors, as discussed in the December 2011 Nature review article.

As discussed earlier, adoptive immunotherapies with engineered T cells would also address patients with a variety of types of cancer (not just melanoma) and from who TILs cannot be isolated. However, whether any therapies with engineered T cells can give the percentages of durable complete responses seen with TIL-based therapy of melanoma remains to be demonstrated in clinical trials.

The Novartis/Penn agreement represents an example of Novartis’ willingness to take risks, in order to “bring innovative therapies to patients”, as stated by Hervé Hoppenot, President, Novartis Oncology. Mark Fishman, President of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, sees cancer immunotherapy as “one of the exciting frontiers in cancer research,” and the CAR technology as showing “early promise as a new way for treating cancer.”

Novartis thus has not built a viable business model for TIL-based ACT. However, it is developing a parallel technology that is more protectable than TILs, which might result in bringing adoptive cellular immunotherapy to a much larger number of patients.

BiTE immunotherapy

Meanwhile another type of T-cell-based immunotherapy technology (also discussed in the Nature review) is now under development. This is bi-specific T-cell engager (BiTE) technology, originally developed by the German-American biotech company Micromet. Amgen acquired Micromet in April 2012, and is now developing the first BiTE agent, blinatumomab. Blinatumomab is a bispecific MAb that binds to CD19 on target B-cell malignancies and to CD3 (an invariant component of the T-cell receptor) on T cells. This results in the activation of the T cell to exert cytotoxic activity on the target cell. BiTE immunotherapy does not require isolation and culture of autologous T cells, and BITE technology and therapeutics derived from it are patentable as with other drugs.

In May 2012, Amgen reported that blinatumomab treatment gave a high rate (72 percent) of complete responses in a Phase 2 study in patients with relapsed or refractory B-precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The rate of remission seen in this trial was a great improvement over the current standard of care. However, no durable complete responses were seen; median survival was 9 months.


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