22 October 2018

Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovery of cancer immunotherapy via checkpoint inhibition

By |2018-10-22T14:02:37+00:00October 22, 2018|Biomarkers, Cancer, Cancer immunotherapy, Drug Development, Drug Discovery, Haberman Associates, Immunology, Monoclonal Antibodies, Recent News, Translational Medicine|

Checkpoint inhibitor therapies (NIH)

On October 1, 2018, the The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute announced that it had awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their discovery of cancer immunotherapy via immune checkpoint inhibition.

As is usual, these Nobel Prize awards were made decades after the original discoveries. This is despite the growing importance of immunotherapy in cancer treatment, including the prospect for long-term survival of an increasing number of patients.

As we discussed in our January 9, 2014 article on this blog, the development of checkpoint inhibitors was made possible by a line of academic research on T cells that was begun in the 1980s by James P Allison, Ph.D., one of the 2018 Nobel laureates. Dr. Allison’s research focused on targeting cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated protein 4 (CTLA-4) on activated T cells in tumors.

Even after Dr. Allison’s research demonstrated in 1996 that an antibody that targeted CTLA-4 had anti-tumor activity in mice, no pharmaceutical company would agree to work on this system. However, the monoclonal antibody (mAb) specialist company Medarex licensed the antibody in 1999. Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) acquired Medarex in 2009, and the anti-CTLA-4 mAb ipilimumab (BMS’ Yervoy) was approved in 2011 for treatment of metastatic melanoma. It was the first checkpoint inhibitor to be approved by the FDA.

Meanwhile, Dr. Honjo discovered the T-cell protein PD-1 in 1992. PD-1 (programmed cell death protein 1) acts as a brake on the immune system via a different mechanism. PD-1 became a target for other checkpoint inhibitors, notably nivolumab (BMS’ Opdivo—originally developed by Medarex and Ono Pharmaceutical) and pembrolizumab (Merck’s Keytruda). The FDA approved nivolumab for treatment of metastatic melanoma in 2014, and it approved pembrolizumab for the same indication, also in 2014.

Since 2014, clinical studies—and regulatory approvals—of checkpoint inhibitor therapies have been expanded to other types of cancer (e.g., lung and renal cancers, lymphomas). They now also include mAb agents that target yet another checkpoint protein, PD-L1. (programmed death-ligand 1).  Moreover, clinical studies of combination therapies of inhibitors of both PD-1 and CTLA-4 in patients with metastatic melanoma showed that the combination therapy is more effective than treatment with either agent alone.

Clinical studies on immune checkpoint therapy have since developed rapidly. Researchers have applied this type of therapy to a wide range of types of cancer, and have also developed additional checkpoint inhibitor drugs. A major reason for the intense interest in checkpoint inhibitor therapy is the potential of these drugs to produce long-term survival. However, only a minority of patients show such dramatic responses. Researchers have therefore been attempting to develop biomarkers and diagnostic tests to identify factors that promote long-term survival in patients. They have also been working to develop potentially more-effective therapies by combining checkpoint inhibitors with other agents. Such attempts to build on prior achievements in immuno-oncology to improve outcomes for more patients are often referred to as “immuno-oncology 2.0.” Agents that are intended to improve the results of treatment with agents like checkpoint inhibitors may also be referred to as “second-wave” or “third-wave” immuno-oncology agents.

Our 2017 report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes  (published by Insight Pharma Reports) focuses on immuno-oncology 2.0 strategies. This report, as well as several articles on this blog, provide updated discussions of approved and clinical stage agents in immuno-oncology (including checkpoint inhibitors and “second-wave” agents). These materials also discuss other classes of cancer immunotherapy agents, such as cancer vaccines and cellular immunotherapies.

Other early immuno-oncology researchers who did not receive the Nobel

As pointed out in the October 1 Nature News article about the Nobel Prize, there were other researchers who made seminal early discoveries in immuno-oncology who were not included in the Nobel Prize. (This usually happens.)

Gordon Freeman, an immunologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (Boston, MA), was named in the Nature News article as one of these researchers. Dr. Freeman, along with immunologists Arlene Sharpe (Harvard Medical School, Boston MA) and Lieping Chen (Yale University, New Haven, CT), studied checkpoint proteins, especially a protein that binds to PD-1 known as PD-L1. PD-L1 is the target for the approved checkpoint inhibitor mAb agents atezolizumab (Roche/ Genentech’s Tecentriq) and avelumab (Merck/Serono-Pfizer’s Bavencio). Although the CTLA-4 inhibitor ipilimumab was the first checkpoint inhibitor to be approved, it has so far been shown to work only in melanoma. However, PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitors have been approved for the treatment of 13 different types of cancer so far. According to Dr. Freeman, his discoveries and those of his collaborators “were foundational” in the development of PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitors.

Nevertheless, Dr. Freeman also said that Dr. Allison’s work with CTLA-4 was foundational for the development of the field of immuno-oncology, beginning when most researchers and pharmaceutical companies considered it to be scientifically premature. “Jim Allison has been a real advocate and champion of the idea of immunotherapy,” he said. “And CTLA-4 was a first success.”

All in all, Dr. Freeman says that it has been exciting to watch the immuno-oncology field develop. Not only has this development involved “an incredible amount of human creativity and energy,” but many cancer patients are doing better as the result of the entry of immuno-oncology drugs into the oncologist’s armamentarium.

Also as usual, Drs. Allison and Honjo received other prestigious awards prior to receiving the Nobel. In 2015, Dr. Allison received a Lasker prize for his work in cancer immunotherapy. (Lasker awards are commonly called the “American Nobels”). Dr. Honjo won the Kyoto Prize in basic sciences in 2016. This is a global prize awarded by the Inamori Foundation.

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As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

23 August 2018

NewLink Genetics—new organizational and clinical trial strategy for development of its cancer immunotherapy drug indoximod

By |2018-09-12T21:30:40+00:00August 23, 2018|Cancer, Cancer immunotherapy, Drug Development, Immunology, Translational Medicine|

Indoximod (1-methyl-D-tryptophan)

In Chapter 2 of our 2017 book-length report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes (published by Insight Pharma Reports), we discussed the major approved and emerging checkpoint inhibitors and checkpoint inhibitor modulators. Most of these, exemplified by the PD-1 inhibitors pembrolizumab (Merck’s Keytruda) and nivolumab (BMS’ Opdivo), and the PD-L1 inhibitor atezolizumab (Roche/ Genentech’s Tecentriq), are monoclonal antibodies (mAbs). Chapter 2 also included discussions of several small-molecule checkpoint inhibitor modulators, notably NewLink Genetics’ indoximod (D-1-methyl-tryptophan). Indoximod is an inhibitor of tryptophan catabolism via the kynurenine pathway (also known as the IDO pathway). IDO1 (indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase 1) is the enzyme that catalyzes the first and rate-limiting step of that pathway.

We also discussed NewLink’s IDO pathway programs in the November 25, 2014 article on this blog.

Recently, on July 31, 2018, NewLink announced that it has decided to focus its indoximod clinical programs on treatment of three specific indications:

  1. recurrent pediatric brain tumors,
  2. front-line treatment of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG),
  3. front-line treatment of acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

These are relatively rare cancer indication with high unmet medical need. NewLink will also continue to advance NLG802, a prodrug of indoximod. NLG802 has demonstrated significantly higher pharmacokinetic exposure in preclinical models.

This program is in contrast to NewLink’s previous clinical trial focus on advanced metastatic melanoma, a more “mainstream” target for cancer immunotherapy. Specifically, the company had been conducting Phase 1/2 studies of combinations of indoximod with the leading checkpoint inhibitors pembrolizumab (Merck’s Keytruda) or nivolumab (Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo). On April 16, 2018, NewLink announced that it would not proceed to the randomization portion of these Phase 1/2 studies.

NewLink’s change in its clinical trial strategy, as well as its organizational and financial restructuring, was in reaction to the recent Phase 3 failure of Incyte’s IDO-inhibitor drug epacadostat (in combination with pembrolizumab), in late-stage melanoma.

At the time of NewLink’s initial announcement of its change in clinical trial strategy (April 18, 2018), the company’s shares were down 8% premarket. This was despite the simultaneous release of positive preliminary Phase 1 data on the effect of indoximod treatment of children with progressive brain tumors.

Organizational changes in support of NewLink’s new strategy

NewLink has completed a set of organizational changes designed to support its new strategy within its current financial capacity, to substantially cut future expenses, and to extend its cash runway into the second half of 2021. The company is reducing its headcount by approximately 30%, and has made several changes to its senior management, in support of its strategic realignment.

As a result of its organizational changes, NewLink anticipates its current cash runway to extend into the second half of 2021. This excludes any additional financings, proceeds from strategic alliances, and other receipts or expenditures. NewLink expects to expend approximately $10 million per quarter after completing its restructuring.

Mechanistic difference between epacadostat and indoximod

As we discussed in our November 25, 2104 blog post, IDO [and the related enzyme tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO)] are enzymes that catalyze the first and rate-limiting step of tryptophan catabolism through the IDO pathway. The resulting depletion of tryptophan, an essential amino acid, inhibits T-cell proliferation. Moreover, the tryptophan metabolite kynurenine can induce development of immunosuppressive regulatory T cells (Tregs), as well as causing apoptosis of effector T cells, especially Th1 cells.

The IDO pathway is active in many types of cancer both within tumor cells and within antigen presenting cells (APCs) in tumor draining lymph nodes. This pathway can suppress T-cell activation within tumors, and also promote peripheral tolerance to tumor associated antigens. Via both of these mechanisms, the IDO pathway may enable the survival, growth, invasion and metastasis of malignant cells by preventing their recognition and destruction by the immune system. Inhibitors of the IDO pathway may therefore block these immunosuppressive pathways, and may therefore enhance the efficacy of checkpoint inhibitor drugs. Development of IDO pathway inhibitors thus constitute an immunotherapy 2.0 strategy.

Epacadostat, Incyte’s drug candidate that failed in the Phase 3 clinical trial, is a direct inhibitor of IDO1.

In contrast, D-1-methyl-tryptophan (NewLink’s indoximod) does not inhibit IDO at all, but inhibits the IDO-related enzyme IDO2.  Indoximod also works to reverse the IDO-mediated inhibition of the immunoregulatory kinase mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin), and specifically of mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1), a protein complex that functions as a nutrient/energy/redox sensor and controls protein synthesis.  mTORC1 appears to interpret indoximod as a highly potent mimetic of the amino acid L-tryptophan. It thus can reverse the effects of tryptophan catabolism mediated by the IDO pathway. It is possible that indoximod may be active against tumors driven by any tryptophan catabolic pathway. Indoximod’s unique and complex mechanism of action is not fully understood. Further investigations could thus result in new therapeutic insights. However, current results of mechanistic studies indicate the possibility that indoximod may be a superior agent to epacadostat in potentiating immunotherapeutic efficacy of checkpoint inhibitors.

Moreover, early Phase 2 clinical data on treatment of advanced melanoma patients with a combination of indoximod and the PD-1 inhibitor pembrolizumab indicated that after a median follow-up of 10.5 months, 60 evaluable patients experienced an overall response rate (ORR) of 52%, including six complete and 25 partial responses. The combination therapy was well tolerated.

However, as we discussed earlier, NewLink has shifted its clinical trial program away from melanoma to three rarer cancer indications with high unmet medical need. The outcome of the company’s efforts to develop indoximod awaits the results of the clinical trials in these cancer indications, which are now in the Phase 1b stage.

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As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

14 March 2018

MIT study finds that the probability of clinical trial success is nearly 40% higher than previously thought

By |2018-11-07T18:18:58+00:00March 14, 2018|Biomarkers, Cancer, Drug Development, Haberman Associates, Immunology, Personalized Medicine, Recent News, Strategy and Consulting, Translational Medicine|

NIH Clinical Center

On December 7, 2017 we published an article on this blog entitled ”Improving Candidate Selection: Translating Molecules into Medicines”. This article was based on a December 4, 2017 symposium sponsored by Aptuit entitled “Improving Candidate Selection: Translating Molecules into Medicines”. The focus of the meeting was on improving drug candidate selection in order to improve development success.

Our article stated that “Only about 10% of drug candidates make their way from first-in-humans trials to regulatory approval. The greatest amount of attrition occurs in Phase 2. Approximately half of candidates fail at that stage, mainly due to lack of efficacy.” As we also stated in that article, drug attrition numbers have not changed since our 2009 publications, “Approaches to Reducing Phase II Attrition” and “Overcoming Phase II Attrition Problem”.

However, especially since the year 2000, drug developers have been working with increasingly newer classes of drugs. They attribute continuing high attrition rates to difficulties in working with ever-changing classes of drugs designed to treat complex diseases. Attrition thus continues to be a moving target.

Several more recent estimates of clinical trial success are comparable to those cited by participants in the Aptuit symposium, and in our own 2009 publications. For example, as pointed out by Endpoints News, BIO (the Biotechnology Innovation Organization) in a recent publication analyzing clinical development success rate from 2006 to 2015, determined that the overall likelihood of approval from Phase 1 for all drug candidates was 9.6%, and 11.9% for all indications other than cancer. (The likelihood of approval for oncology candidates was 5.1%; this is about the same as the figure for oncology success cited in our 2009 report.) Meanwhile, AstraZeneca cited a 5% success rate for its own candidates in a January 2018 analysis.

Now comes a January 2018 study by Andrew W Lo, Ph.D. and his colleagues at MIT that concludes that 13.8% of all drug development programs eventually lead to approval. This study was discussed in a February 1, 2018 article in Endpoints News by John Carroll. Dr. Lo is the Director of the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering.

As with earlier studies, the success rates depend on the particular indication. For example, infectious disease vaccines have the highest rate of success, 33.4%. Oncology drugs—as in most such studies—have the lowest rate of success—3.4%.

Dr. Lo’s study represents a Big Data approach to determining drug development success rates.The MIT group analyzed a large dataset of over 40,000 entries from nearly 186,000 clinical trials of over 21,000 compounds. To analyze this dataset, the researchers developed automated algorithms designed to trace each drug development path and compute probability of success (POS) statistics in a matter of hours. If generating POS estimates had been done by traditional manual methods, it would have taken months or years.

Despite the intense focus of the biopharmaceutical industry, investors, and the general public on cancer, the POS for oncology drugs has been consistently abysmal for years—as shown by our 2009 report, the 2016 BIO report, and the Lo et al. 2018 MIT study. However, according to the MIT study, although the POS for oncology drugs had the lowest overall approval rate of 3.4% in 2013, it rose to 8.3% in 2015. Both Dr. Lo’s group and John Carroll of Endpoint News attribute this sharp rise to the advent of immuno-oncology drugs.

As we discussed in our February 22, 2018 blog article, “JP Morgan 2018 (JPM18) panel optimistic for new breakthrough immuno-oncology therapies despite a crowded field”, leading researchers in academia and industry believe that because of the strong emergence of immuno-oncology therapies, now is probably the best time for progress in oncology in several decades. This is consistent with the findings of Dr. Lo’s group. However, as we stated in our previous blog article (based on the conclusions of the JPM18 panel), “This historic opportunity would be maximally capitalized if people from academia, industry, regulatory agencies, and nonprofit organizations work together, especially in adopting novel collaborative study design, aimed at bringing the promise of cancer immunotherapies to patients, sooner rather than later.”

Another issue discussed by Dr. Lo and his colleagues in their study is role of biomarkers in the success of clinical trials. The researchers compared POS estimates for trials that stratified patients using biomarkers to those that did not use biomarkers. They found that trials that utilized biomarkers tended to be more successful (by nearly a factor of 2) than those that did not. However, biomarker-stratified trials studied by the MIT group were nearly all in oncology. Therefore, it was not possible for the MIT researchers to obtain valid conclusions on the role of biomarkers for therapeutic areas outside of oncology.

Nevertheless, with the continuing development of oncology biomarkers, coupled with breakthrough R&D results in immuno-oncology, the MIT researchers expect that the rates of approval of cancer drugs will continue to improve.

Conclusions

Dr. Lo’s group intends to provide continuing information on the success rates of clinical trials, beyond this initial study. The goal is to provide greater risk transparency to drug developers, investors, policymakers, physicians, and patients, order to assist them in their decisions.

Moreover, our book-length report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes can help you understand the role of advances in immuno-oncology in the current and expected increases in drug development success in the cancer field.

As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

22 February 2018

JP Morgan 2018 (JPM18) panel optimistic for new breakthrough immuno-oncology therapies despite a crowded field

By |2018-09-12T21:30:29+00:00February 22, 2018|Cancer, Drug Development, Drug Discovery, Haberman Associates, Immunology, Monoclonal Antibodies, Personalized Medicine, Strategy and Consulting, Translational Medicine|

On January 12, 2018, Endpoints News sponsored a breakfast panel at the 2018 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference (JPM18) in San Francisco, CA. The focus of this panel was the current state of clinical cancer immunotherapy development. The full panel is recorded as a video on YouTube. The panel is also discussed in a special Web article on Endpoint News.

The impetus for this panel was a published research report (dated 1 January 2018) by Aiman Shalabi and his colleagues at The Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator, Cancer Research Institute (CRI), New York, NY USA. A slide presentation based on this report [including the role of the CRI in immuno-oncology (IO) innovation] is also included at the bottom the Endpoint News special article.

The panelists in the Endpoint News program (which was entitled “How many PD-1/L1 drugs do we need? Where is immunotherapy headed?”) were Jay Bradner (Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research) Hervé Hoppenot (Incyte), Ellen Sigal ( Friends of Cancer Research), David Berman (AstraZeneca), Gideon Blumenthal (FDA Office of Hematology and Oncology Products), and Aiman Shalabi. The moderator of the panel was John Carroll, the Co-founder and Editor of Endpoints News.

The major conclusion of the published research report and of the panel discussion was that anti-PD-1/PD-L1 studies (including studies of combinations of anti-PD-1/PD-L1 therapies with other agents) will continue to deliver many breakthroughs, with the strong potential to change the standard of care for many types of cancer. However, there is an urgent need for efficiencies. Specifically, a large number of companies and academic groups are testing the same combinations, often using inefficient trial designs. In particular, there has been a great increase in the number of small, investigator-initiated studies.

The CRI team discussed some initiatives aimed at addressing these challenges. In particular, there is the need to move toward novel, collaborative trial designs that allow more questions to be answered more efficiently in a single multicenter trial. Many biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies are adopting these types of study designs. (For example, see Merck’s KEYNOTE-001 adaptive trial of pembolizumab/Keytruda, which led to accelerated approval for metastatic melanoma and NSCLC, as well as a companion diagnostic.) However, such clinical studies sponsored by a single company tend to include drugs only from their own portfolio.

The nonprofit and public sectors, however, can facilitate and conduct these innovative trials across multiple companies and research centers. There are now several examples of nonprofit organizations leading such novel study designs. One example, which was discussed in the Endpoint News panel, is the LUNG-MAP study for lung cancer. LUNG-MAP is a collaboration between Friends of Cancer Research, Foundation for NIH, National Cancer Institute, the Southwest Oncology group, and various biopharmaceutical and diagnostic companies. (Panelist Ellen Sigal of Friends of Cancer Research was especially active in discussing LUNG-MAP.) The study is now open with multiple arms at hundreds of sites.

Dr. Shalabi and his colleagues conclude that now—with the strong emergence of IO therapies—is probably the best time for progress in oncology in several decades. This historic opportunity would be maximally capitalized if people from academia, industry, regulatory agencies, and nonprofit organizations work together, especially in adopting novel collaborative study design, aimed at bringing the promise of cancer immunotherapies to patients, sooner rather than later.

Are there enough patients for IO clinical trials in 2018?

One factor that is often cited as severely limiting the ability of researchers to conduct all the clinical trials in progress and planned for IO agents and combinations is a shortage of patients. The panelists cited a number of 52,000 patients now in trials, with many more needed. However, the panelists estimated that there are 2 million patients per year that are dying of cancer. The best chance for these patients’ survival is for them to be enrolled in a clinical trial, often an IO trial. However, most cancer patients are treated in community settings, and are not even offered clinical trials—let alone the clinical trials that would be the most appropriate for each patient’s disease. From the point of view of patients, their caregivers, and of the research community, these patients need access to clinical trials.

Several panelists (notably Jay Bradner of Novartis) cited the need to move toward patient-driven IO clinical research, and to enlist the patient as a collaborator in clinical trials (for example, via conducting on-treatment tumor biopsies). In support of moving towards patient-driven IO clinical research, the CRI website includes a “Patients” page, that links to a “clinical trial finder”. In our own Biopharmconsortium Blog, the January 12, 2015 article included a section entitled “Implications for patients with terminal cancers”. That section featured links to CRI web pages on immunotherapy trials for pancreatic cancer and glioblastoma, which we used as examples of deadly cancers that have become the subject of IO clinical trials. Now—in 2018—it is even more imperative that IO trials become patient-driven.

Why so many IO combination clinical trials?

Many of the IO trials currently in progress are combination trials with a checkpoint inhibitor and a second agent. The rationale for these trials is that there is a significant unmet need in IO, since (depending on the type of cancer) some 80% of patients do not respond to checkpoint inhibitors. As we discussed at length in our 2017 book-length report, “Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes”, and more briefly in our September 20, 2017 article on this blog, checkpoint inhibitors work by reactivating intratumoral T cells, especially CD8+ cytotoxic T cells. Checkpoint inhibitors are therefore ineffective in treating “cold” tumors (which lack T cell infiltration), and immunosuppressed tumors that inhibit infiltrating T cells. Researchers and companies are therefore attempting to develop agents that render cold or immunosuppressed tumors “hot”. When such agents are given in combination with checkpoint inhibitors, they may improve their effectiveness, thus resulting in tumor shrinkage. This type of strategy, as discussed in our report, is a major theme of “second wave” immuno-oncology, or “immuno-oncology 2.0.” Many of these agents are discussed in our 2017 report.

Many of these complementary “immunotherapy 2.0” agents are being developed by small or medium-sized biotechnology companies. (One such medium-sized company, Incyte, was represented on the JPM18 panel.) Large pharmaceutical companies that have been developing checkpoint inhibitors are thus seeking to collaborate with or acquire smaller companies that are developing “immunotherapy 2.0” agents. Interestingly, Jay Bradner of Novartis stated that he was more concerned about competition from the “500 biotechs within a 20 mile radius around Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR)-Cambridge” than from another Big Pharma in IO. However, in terms of conducting clinical trials, Novartis has a big advantage over small biotechs because of its global reach—it can expand a clinical trial by opening up sites in Europe. Nevertheless, NIBR-Cambridge is actively recruiting the participation of biotech companies in IO combination studies, and wishes to become the “partner of choice” for such collaborative studies.

The JPM18 panel is optimistic for the prospects of IO therapies

The JPM18 panel was very optimistic that IO clinical studies will result in breakthrough therapies that will change the practice of treatment of important types of cancer, and that such breakthroughs should start to emerge within the next two years.

This is in contrast to the pessimism of many people in the biotech/pharma industry, and in parts of the venture capital community. For example, a January 4, 2018 article in Forbes by venture capitalist Bruce Booth suggests that the crowding of the IO field is making it difficult for small biotechs to compete with the clinical and post-marketing programs of the larger companies, and that starting new IO companies is difficult. Researchers, entrepreneurs and funders would be better off focusing on areas like neuroscience, according to this article.

Nevertheless:

1. Potentially important IO deals between small and large companies are being done. For example, on February 14, 2018 Nektar Therapeutics (San Francisco, CA) and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) announced that they had concluded a $3.6 billion collaboration deal for a minority share of Nektar’s early-stage T-cell modulator NKTR-214, a CD122 agonist. The collaboration will study combinations of NKTR-214 with BMS’ checkpoint inhibitors Opdivo and Yervoy, in 20 indications involving 9 types of tumors. We covered NKTR-214 in the chapter on immune agonists in our 2017 Cancer Immunotherapy report.The Opdivo/NKTR-214 combination has been evaluated in Phase 1/2 studies. Nektar and BMS now are initiating clinical trials with the potential for registration data that could start coming in in about 18 to 24 months.

2. New IO companies are being started and funded. Tmunity Therapeutics, a CAR-T based cellular immunotherapy company, was founded by Carl H. June, MD and his collaborators at Penn Medicine in January 2016. On January 23, 2018, Tmunity announced that it was raising $100 million from a group of investors including Gilead Sciences, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, Ping An Ventures, and Be The Match, a patient advocacy group. The company will use the funding in part to finance two clinical trials that will attempt to use genetically modified T-cells to treat solid tumors. As we discussed in our 2017 Cancer Immunotherapy report, using CAR-T and related types of T cells to treat solid tumors has proven to be more difficult than treating blood cancers. Tmumity researchers are attempting to overcome these difficulties.

Meanwhile, CAR-T company Juno Therapeutics (Summit, NJ) is being acquired by Celgene for approximately $9 billion.

3. Researchers continue to make discoveries with the potential to improve the efficacy and safety of IO therapies for increasing numbers of patients. For example, the February 2018 issue of Nature Biotechnology reported on two such discoveries: a model to determine which tumor neoepitopes (or neoantigens) are likely to result in tumor response to checkpoint inhibitor therapy, and studies on the effects of gut bacteria on patent response to IO treatments. The tumor neoepitope research was originally published in the 22 November 2017 issue of Nature . We discussed neoantigen modeling and other aspects of neoantigen science in three types of IO therapies (checkpoint inhibitor, cancer vaccine, and cellular immunotherapy) in our 2017 Cancer Immunotherapy report.

The gut bacteria/tumor IO research was originally published in the 2 November 2017 issue of Science, and was reviewed in a News article in Nature.

A third recent discovery concerns the role of TGF-beta in resistance to checkpoint inhibitor therapy. In mouse models, a TGF-beta inhibitor enables T cells to get into IO resistant tumors. Checkpoint inhibitor therapy (given together with the checkpoint inhibitor) then becomes more effective in shrinking the tumor. Several TGF-beta inhibitor/checkpoint inhibitor combinations are now in clinical studies. However, to date, TGF-beta inhibitors have been suffering from various safety and/or efficacy issues.Therefore, some researchers have suggested the need for developing improved TGF-beta pathway inhibitors for use in combination with checkpoint inhibitors.

As research on IO continues, some of these discoveries will make their way into improved therapies with increased patient benefit.

Our report, “Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes”

Our 2017 Cancer Immunotherapy report can help you achieve a deep understanding of the IO field. This especially applies to immuno-oncology 2.0, which is the basis for IO combination trials. Our report covers the three major areas of IO R&D—checkpoint inhibitor therapy (including combination therapies), cancer vaccines, and cellular immunotherapies. Immunotherapy 2.0 strategies, agents, and companies discussed in our report may well make the news over the next several years, in terms of corporate deals and product approvals. This has already been happening, as illustrated by the BMS/Nektar collaboration discussed earlier, the emergence of strategies and clinical trials aimed at developing CAR-T therapies for solid tumors at Tmunity, and the continuing development of neoantigen science aimed at improved IO therapies. Our report is thus well worth purchasing and reading for those who are interested in the further development of IO.

For more information on our report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes, or to order it, see the CHI Insight Pharma Reports website.

As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

19 October 2017

Can immunotherapy 2.0 strategies save the cancer vaccine field?

By |2018-09-12T21:30:39+00:00October 19, 2017|Cancer, Drug Development, Drug Discovery, Haberman Associates, Immunology, Monoclonal Antibodies, Personalized Medicine, Recent News, Strategy and Consulting, Translational Medicine|

CTLs attacking cancer cells.

 

On September 15, 2017, Bavarian Nordic’s Phase 3 trial of its cancer vaccine Prostvac ended in failure. Prostvac failed to improve overall survival in patients with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer, as determined by the clinical trial.

We had listed Prostvac in Chapter 5 and in Table 5-2 of our 2017 report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes, as a cancer vaccine that was in Phase 3 clinical trials. However, as we stated in that chapter, “It is possible that one or more of the experimental agents listed in Table 5-2 may [also] experience late-stage failure.” That is because the cancer vaccine field has been subject to a high rate of clinical failure, including several late-stage failures in 2016.

Despite the high rate of failure in the cancer vaccine field, there are now two FDA approved cancer vaccines— sipuleucel-T (Dendreon/Valeant’s Provenge) and talimogene laherparepvec (Amgen’s Imlygic/T-Vec), the latter of which is an oncolytic virus, rather than a true cancer vaccine. However, both of these agents are rather marginal therapies. Sipuleucel-T has an apparently minimal effect and is very expensive and difficult to manufacture. T-Vec must be injected directly into a tumor, and as a monotherapy, there is no evidence for improvement of overall survival or effects on distant metastases. However, researchers have hypothesized that as a directly-injected agent, T-Vec might produce an inflammatory tumor microenvironment that will provide an ideal target for checkpoint inhibitors. Thus, researchers have had expectations that combination therapies of T-Vec with checkpoint inhibitors which are now in progress may yield much better results.

Indeed, on October 6, 2017, a peer-reviewed Phase 2 published study indicates that a combination of Imlygic and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s (BMS’) CTLA4 checkpoint inhibitor Ipilimumab (Yervoy) doubles response rates in advanced melanoma as compared to Yervoy alone. The published trial results show that the objective response rate for the combination was 39%, compared to 18% for Yervoy alone. With respect to complete responses, the combination gave13% as compared to 7% for Yervoy alone. Responses occurred in patients with and without visceral disease and in uninjected lesions after combination treatment, according to the study.

Amgen’s head of R&D, Sean E. Harper MD says that the trial provides an important proof-of-concept for combining the complementary mechanisms of an oncolytic viral immunotherapy and a checkpoint inhibitor to enhance antitumor effects, adding that the company intends to test Imlygic in combination other checkpoint inhibitors in “a variety of tumor types”.

Imlygic—in combination with another checkpoint inhibitor, pembrolizumab (Merck’s PD-1 inhibitor Keytruda)—is in a Phase 3 trial (KEYNOTE-034, clinical trial number NCT02263508) in advanced melanoma. This trial is expected to yield preliminary results in 2018. In 2014, the Phase 1b/2 MASTERKEY-256 trial of the Imlygic/Keytruda combination in advanced melanoma showed an overall response rate (ORR) of around 56%.

These data indicate that the immunotherapy 2.0 strategy of using Imlygic to generate an inflammatory tumor microenvironment may produce a synergistic clinical effect and enhanced anti-tumor immune response in patients with metastatic melanoma who are also treated with a checkpoint inhibitor.

As we discuss in Chapter 5 of our 2017 Cancer Immunotherapy report, several cancer vaccine developers are pursuing a similar strategy—use cancer vaccines to render tumors inflamed [i.e. especially with cytotoxic tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs)], and use checkpoint inhibitors to induce regression of the inflamed tumors. In some cases, cancer vaccines are being tested in combination with checkpoint inhibitors in Phase 1 or Phase 2 clinical trials, rather than the “traditional” approach of first getting a vaccine approved and then conducting trials of the vaccine in combination with other agents. The hope is that testing a vaccine in combination with a checkpoint inhibitor in early stage clinical trials might prevent clinical failure of a potentially useful cancer vaccine. However, whether this strategy will work for any particular vaccine remains to be seen.

Neoantigen cancer vaccines

Another novel immunotherapy 2.0 strategy for cancer vaccine discovery and development discussed in our report involves neoantigen science. Recent studies exploring mechanisms by which TILs and other components of the immune system recognize tumor cells and differentiate them from noncancer cells have focused on “neoantigens”—i.e. antigens that are specific for cancer cells as opposed to normal, noncancer cells. These neoantigens are associated with somatic mutations that arise in the evolution of tumor cells. Neoantigen-specific TILs appear to mediate tumor regression, and this antitumor activity may be enhanced by checkpoint inhibitor therapy. Such studies have led researchers to hypothesize that personalized neoantigen-based vaccines may be more effective than earlier types of cancer vaccines. Some researchers have therefore been attempting to develop technology platforms for vaccine design based on determination of neoantigens in tumors.

In particular, neoantigen researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Broad Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital recently founded a company, Neon Therapeutics (Cambridge, MA). Neon focuses on neoantigen science and technology for the development of neoantigen-based therapeutic vaccines and T-cell therapies to treat cancer.

These researchers published a report in the 13 July issue of Nature describing their Phase 1 study in patients with previously untreated high-risk melanoma of a personalized neoantigen vaccine designated NEO-PV-01 by Neon Therapeutics and in Chapter 5 of our report.

As discussed in our report, Neon’s lead clinical program, NEO-PV-01, builds upon initial clinical trials developed collaboratively by the Broad Institute and the Dana-Farber. NEO-PV-01 is a personalized vaccine that is custom-designed and manufactured to include targets for the immune system [i.e. naturally-processed, major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-binding, neoantigen peptide epitopes] that are unique to an individual’s cancer. The 13 July Nature report focuses on results of the ongoing Phase 1 clinical trial designated NCT01970358 of the combination of poly-ICLC [poly-inosinic acid/poly-cytidylic acid/poly-lysine, an adjuvant] and multiple neoantigen peptide epitopes in melanoma.

As discussed in that Nature paper, neoantigens were long envisioned as optimal targets for anti-tumor immune responses. However, the systematic identification of neoantigens in a particular patient’s tumors only became feasible with the availability of massively parallel sequencing for detection of coding mutations, and of machine learning technology to reliably predict those naturally-processed mutated peptides that bind with high affinity to autologous major histocompatibility (MHC) molecules. (The term “naturally-processed” refers to antigenic peptide epitopes that are processed intracellularly and which bind with high affinity to autologous class I or class II MHC molecules. The MHC/peptide complexes are then recognized by T cells.)

In the study described in the 13 July Nature paper, the researchers demonstrated the feasibility, safety, and immunogenicity of a vaccine (designated NEO-PV-01 as discussed earlier), which targets up to 20 predicted personal tumor neoantigens. Vaccine-induced polyfunctional CD4+ and CD8+ T cells targeted 58 (60%) and 15 (16%) of 97 unique neoantigens across patients, respectively. These T cells discriminated mutated from wild-type antigens, and in some cases directly recognized autologous tumor. Of six vaccinated patients, four had no recurrence as of 25 months post-vaccination. Two other patients who had recurrent disease were subsequently treated with the anti-PD-1 antibody pembrolizumab (Merck’s Keytruda). These two patients experienced complete tumor regression, with expansion of the repertoire of neoantigen-specific T cells.

These results strongly support further development of the researchers’ neoantigen vaccine approach, both alone and in combination with checkpoint inhibitors or other immunotherapies. Neon Therapeutics is currently sponsoring an open-label Phase 1b clinical study of NEO-PV-01 plus adjuvant in combination with nivolumab (BMS’ Opdivo) in patients with melanoma, smoking-associated non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC) or transitional cell bladder carcinoma (clinical trial number NCT02897765). Neon entered into a collaboration with BMS to perform this clinical trial in late 2015.

Neon is also developing NEO-PTC-01, a personal neoantigen autologous T cell therapy, which is now in the research and process development stage. As discussed in Chapter 6 of our 2017 cancer immunotherapy report, neoantigen science is also a factor in adoptive cellular immunotherapy for cancer, especially in Steven A. Rosenberg MD, PhD’s recent studies of TIL therapy.

Other neoantigen cancer vaccine companies

In addition to Neon, other young companies that specialize in development of neoantigen-based cancer vaccines include BioNTech AG (Mainz, Germany), Gritstone Oncology (Emeryville, CA and Cambridge, MA), ISA Pharmaceuticals (Leiden, The Netherlands), Agenus (Lexington, MA), and Caperna (Cambridge, MA). Of these companies, BioNTech and Caperna [which is a Moderna (Cambridge, MA) venture company] are developing RNA-based personalized neoantigen vaccines. The other companies are developing peptide neoantigen vaccines based on their proprietary technologies.

Conclusions

As discussed in this article, and in our 2017 report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes, researchers and developers are applying several immunotherapy 2.0 approaches to attempt to reverse the high rate of failure in the cancer vaccine field.

Moreover, neoantigen science has a potentially wide field of application, ranging from improving clinical outcomes of treatments with checkpoint inhibitors to development of more effective cancer vaccines and of novel cellular immunotherapies.

Our report contains materials designed to enable readers to understand complex issues in neoantigen science, and especially to understand applications of neoantigen science in research reports, clinical trials, corporate news, and product development.

For more information on our report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes, or to order it, see the CHI Insight Pharma Reports website.

As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.