The American Society of Hematology (ASH) is one of those scientific meetings that usually flies below the radar of the wire services and big newspapers. Still, this year’s event in San Francisco has drawn more than 21,000 physicians, scientists, and intensely interested folks from biotech companies and Wall Street. They are all scouting new treatments for diseases of the blood, like leukemias, lymphomas, myelomas, and every clotting disorder you can shake a stick at.
If you don’t think this sounds like a big deal, check out the sales of anti-clotting drug clopidrogel (Plavix): $4.7 billion worldwide for Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis in 2007, even while they faced competition from cheaper generics. Then there’s old ASH standbys like Genentech and Biogen Idec’s rituximab (Rituxan) for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which eclipsed $2 billion in U.S. sales last year and keeps growing.
So, I’ve been keeping an eye on the next big thing for the blood. Here are the newsiest stories we saw cross our biotechnology desk in our three-city network of Boston, San Diego, and Seattle:
The Bothell, WA-based biotech company (NASDAQ: SGEN) caused a stir with its “empowered” antibody drug, which has the tumor-targeting ability of an antibody loaded with a potent toxin to give it extra tumor-killing kick. The drug, SGN-35, was able to completely wipe out aggressive forms of Hodgkin’s disease and related lymphomas with minimal side effects. In a study of 44 patients who were seriously ill and relapsed after a median of three prior rounds of chemotherapy, the Seattle Genetics drug caused tumors to completely disappear or mostly go away in more than one-third of patients (38 percent).
This data is promising enough that Seattle Genetics is preparing to go straight to pivotal studies for Hodgkin’s disease and anaplastic large cell lymphoma in early 2009, which could lead this drug to be FDA approved. Seattle Genetics CEO Clay Siegall said investigators at the ASH meeting are itching to participate in the pivotal studies. “There’s a lot of buzz here,” Siegall said during a break, when he called me yesterday. “The investigators are excited. We’ve never had this much excitement in the 10.5 year history of Seattle Genetics. The doctors really want to get involved in the trial.” He adds that there’s a backlog of patients who could enroll in the next studies, and he’s hopeful that they can be recruited to sign up quickly.
Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Company
Millennium Pharmaceuticals had a breakout performance at last year’s ASH. The Cambridge, MA-based biotech company, now the cancer division of Japan-based Takeda Pharmaceuticals, showed last year that bortezomib (Velcade) could cause complete remissions for 35 percent of patients with multiple myeloma on a combination treatment with its drug, compared with 5 percent who did that well on the combination alone. This year, it showed follow-up data from the trial, called Vista, that showed that early glimpse of promise is translating into an ability to help patients live longer.
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