Novartis, Gilead, Genentech & More: An ASH 2013 Wrap-Up

12/10/13Follow @xconomy

Advances in the treatment of blood cancer were in the news this week. If you missed some of the signal while seeing a lot of noise from press releases, tweets, and analyst reports coming from the American Society of Hematology conference, don’t feel bad. There weren’t a whole lot of major new revelations that I saw, but rather there were more detailed updates on stories that have been building for some time.

I wasn’t able to make it to the event this year in New Orleans, but here are a few of the reports that caught my eye from afar:

Designer Immune Cells Diminish Cancer in Leukemia Cases” by Elizabeth Lopatto of Bloomberg News. This story, by a former colleague of mine at Bloomberg, reported on some eye-opening results of work from Carl June and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. The scientists are trying to break new ground by withdrawing blood from patients, using gene therapy to transform certain immune system T cells so they seek and destroy cancer cells, and then re-infusing the modified cells into the body. One study of this approach, known as “chimeric antigen receptor-modified T cell” or CART therapy, showed that an astounding 19 of 22 pediatric patients with acute lymphocytic leukemia had a complete response, and all five adults with that disease performed that well. Swiss pharma giant Novartis has the commercial rights to the June group’s work, and it’s planning a series of clinical trials to build on the early momentum.

Gene Therapy Scores Big Win Against Blood Cancers” by Marilynn Marchione of AP. Marchione’s story describes the same CART therapy work out of Penn, makes reference to competitors at places like Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and MD Anderson Cancer Center, and quotes a few very optimistic researchers. At the end, Marchione relates a couple anecdotes about patients who got the experimental treatment. Marchione’s piece didn’t mention the big new kid on the CART block—Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics, which raised a $120 million Series A venture financing last week.

Ditching Big Drugmakers for Biotech Brings Leukemia Boon” by Meg Tirrell of Bloomberg News. This ASH preview story, by another former colleague, is great news for anybody who has been recently diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the second-most common form of leukemia in adults. Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD), Pharmacyclics (NASDAQ: PCYC), and Infinity Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: INFI) are all mentioned for their CLL drugs in this story, and the evidence of success is mounting across the landscape of new treatments. Exciting as that medical story is, biotech industry readers will also enjoy the main business narrative from behind the scenes. It’s about how a few gutsy entrepreneurs gambled on a molecule in early development, raised enough venture capital to show it had promise at Calistoga Pharmaceuticals, and sold it to a big company (Gilead) that is now proving its real worth. Tirrell followed through on the CLL story yesterday, writing a conference wrap up that has doctors talking about how Gilead, Pharmacyclics, and Genentech/Roche’s new drugs have got them thinking about chronic disease management without the toxic side effects of chemo.

AbbVie Leukemia Drug Impresses in Early-Stage Trial” by Ransdell Pierson of Reuters. This article is about ABT-199, an experimental drug designed to work against blood cancers by going after a molecular target called BCL-2. AbbVie is developing the drug in partnership with Roche. This drug is early in development for CLL, tested in just 67 patients, but it showed that 84 percent had a significant response, in which their tumors were shrunk by 50 percent or more. One patient, however, died of “tumor lysis syndrome,” in which the cancer was wiped out so quickly that the patient was unable to effectively excrete the waste fast enough. Pieter Droppert described more of what went wrong here at Biotech Strategy Blog, as one doctor at ASH said the investigators of the trial messed up.

Geron’s Game-Changing Myelofibrosis Drug Story has a Familiar Feel” by Adam Feuerstein of TheStreet.com. Feuerstein recounts the story of Geron’s (NASDAQ: GERN) imetelstat at this year’s ASH meeting, and how the debate it has stirred on Wall Street reminds him of YM Biosciences before it was acquired by Gilead.

Twitter Use Increasing at ASH and ASCO Annual Meetings” by Michael A. Thompson. This isn’t traditional journalism by a traditional journalist, but Thompson, a prolific cancer physician/researcher/tweeter from Wisconsin, rounded up some interesting stats on the increasing use of social media at this week’s big medical meeting. Surely a lot of facts were reported from the conference on Twitter, but I have to say it’s getting awfully noisy with so many voices, making it harder to absorb the information that’s most meaningful.

Thankfully, that’s why we still have professional journalists to gather the facts, double check things, separate out what’s important and what’s not, and put the news in context. Right?

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  • Christopher

    The Twitter article is timely given the fine on Medivir for reacting “too slowly” (3 hours) to a tweet about their data issued by someone else. It reinforces Pharma’s difficulty of owning the news even though they did not release it. The volume of tweets reported by Dr Thompson reinforces the challenge facing comms & compliance depts who have to police all of this.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/ Luke Timmerman

    Whoever said pharma should ‘own the news’? Pharma has a duty to responsibly communicate the safety/efficacy profile of its products in a timely manner, and physicians, regulators, patients and journalists all have the right to ask questions to further our understanding. It all just happens now in a more transparent way, and in a faster way on social media. It is true that pharma had better be more nimble in communications, because this isn’t the last time you’ll hear a story like this.

    • Christopher

      Luke – Who decides what is timely? In this case Medivir had determined this info did not contain ‘sensational news’ but the tweet by a presumably unrelated third party prompted a response by Medivir. This granted them de facto ownership. I’m saying that Pharma is now expected to ‘own’ any news of this nature regardless of whether they create or disseminate it, and that is an onerous responsibility. And I agree it’s not the last time we’ll see this but I am interested in how Pharma will resource the policing of third party comment on their news.

    • Christopher

      PS I agree that we all have the right to expect answers to the questions you mentioned above. The case I commented on was not a question but an unsolicited tweet by a third party which caused the company to respond. (I think 3 hours is not untimely.) Two quite different situations.