The past three years have seen 36 deals in immuno-oncology between pharma and biotech companies, each worth more than USD 30 million in upfront payments, including the landmark collaboration between Merck Healthcare and Pfizer for USD 6 billion in upfronts.
After delivering this analysis from BioScience Advisors during the opening plenary session at BIO-Europe® 2015, Managing Director Mark Edwards asked the panel of pharma executives he had assembled, what is driving such a sustained interest in forming alliances in oncology.
“We are truly in a transformational time,” responded without hesitation Bahija Jallal, an executive vice president at AstraZeneca and the head of MedImmune, that company’s biologics research and development arm.
“Over 20 years we have seen excitement about targets and therapies in oncology, but I would never have thought that in my lifetime we would see the power of the immune system harnessed,” she said.
The turning point came in 2013 with the first report of data from a trial of new agents of PD-1, PD-L1 and immune checkpoint inhibitors in treating non-small lung cancer that showed a durability in response not seen with targeted therapies.
The success of this trial, the first to move beyond prior successes for combination therapy in renal cancer and melanoma, signaled that “every single cancer is game now,” she said.
“This transformation in cancer is amazing,” she said. “This is why we are seeing such a proliferation of deals and it absolutely behooves all of us to be working with urgency.”
Echoing this enthusiasm, Simon Sturge, Chief Operating Officer at Merck Healthcare, said, “There is a realization that in order to drive these benefits to patients, to offer an optimized treatment for patients, no one of us can do it alone. This is what is behind the rapid developments.”
To provoke the plenary panelists, moderator Edwards noted that so far this year 26 combination trials for immuno-oncology programs have been announced, suggesting we may be seeing “something of a feeding frenzy. Isn’t there a certain level of concern for too many combination trials in parallel? Or am I just worrying too much?”
John Glasspool, the Executive VP who heads Corporate Strategy and Customer Operations for Baxalta, fired back that feeding frenzy is a loaded term, something worthy of a moderator among for a Republican Debate in the United States.
Instead he suggested that the current wave of combination therapy clinical trials in oncology may be empirical, following fast on a science that he said “is not there yet.”
Saying he would be happier to let science catch up ahead of announcing new trials, he suggested, “There is a risk of undermining the progress made with such great strides in following the biology with results from some trial that are not as positive. It could take us a step back.
“Overall we are on the right path, a way forward with the robust results we have seen, and that data is driving this excitement,” he added. “Building on these great results, we shouldn’t forget that what has worked before may work again, in combinations not only with checkpoints, but with targeting therapies and new boosting therapies.”
Sturge offered a perspective that we are living in a much smaller world now where data is very rapidly available and just as rapidly shared by physicians, companies and patients with a passion to develop the best therapies.
“Ten years ago, even five years ago, we would have taken a position asking how we can combat that data from a competitor. Now we are asking whether it is appropriate that we do a combination study. The world is much smaller and the mindset is to collaborate,” he said.
Jallal noted that the pharma industry has not always had a reputation for such cooperation.
“Right now seeing the number of collaborations in immuno-therapy, big company to big company, we need to stop and recognize when a good thing is happening. It is something we should enjoy, and tell the world, because 10 years ago, this was not the same situation,” she said. “What we are seeing is really positive, where the industry is allowing experts access to assets and collaborating, and I would rather see the industry in this position than falling back to a conservative position, as it has in the past.
“I don’t want to be overly optimistic, but I am reasonably optimistic,” said Jallal. “I think, with some caution, we have only scratched the surface because we are only helping 20% of patients. I absolutely believe we can help other patients, but it is going to take more biology, more targets that we go after.”
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