Friday Five - The pharma week in review (3 October 2019)

PARPS take the plaudits

In its 2019 incarnation, the annual ESMO congress - held last weekend in Barcelona, Spain - maintained its status as an emerging, if not now established, rival to the ASCO annual meeting in terms of treatment practice-changing news flow.

The role of PARP inhibitors stood out in particular. Compelling data was presented to show that this drug class has a much broader role to play in the treatment of first-line ovarian cancer patients and certain types of prostate cancer.

Partners AstraZeneca and Merck & Co., responsible for co-developing and co-marketing the PARP inhibitor Lynparza, are likely to see their position in this market strengthened as a result and special mention must go to GlaxoSmithKline; the UK company is seeking to reinvent itself in oncology and can argue that impressive data for its PARP inhibitor Zejula has a gone a significant way to justifying its $5.1-billion takeout of Tesaro last year.

Analysis - ViewPoints: ESMO 2019 - GlaxoSmithKline's Tesaro acquisition comes up trumps

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ESMO - best of the rest

Unsurprisingly, late-breaking data presentations in Barcelona were largely dominated by immunotherapy.

Results were presented for Roche's Tecentriq and Bristol-Myers Squibb's combination of Opdivo and Yervoy in first-line non-small-cell lung cancer, suggesting a potential place for both therapies, though Merck & Co.'s Keytruda looks set to remain the dominant brand in this particular indication.

New data also illustrated the expanding presence of immunotherapy into other tumour types, including neoadjuvant triple-negative breast cancer and front-line liver and bladder cancer.

See - Spotlight On: Key questions from ESMO 2019

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Not sleepless in Seattle

Seattle Genetics was the big biotech winner at ESMO. Shares surged 18% over the course of the conference on the strength of Phase I study data presented for the antibody drug conjugate (ADC) enfortumab vedotin in combination with Merck's Keytruda in first-line bladder cancer. In 45 patients, including PD-L1 positives and negatives, the combination demonstrated a response rate of 71%, including six complete remissions. Elsewhere, first-line data presented for Roche's PD-L1 inhibitor Tecentriq in combination with chemotherapy was positive, but somewhat inconclusive, thus raising shareholder expectations of a future role for Seattle’s ADC.

Analysis - ViewPoints: Seattle Genetics rides its ESMO update into strategic partnering position

Experts recently interviewed for a new bladder cancer report published by FirstWord (more details here) are highly enthused about the potential role of ADCs in the future treatment of bladder cancer. Excitement has continued to build around enfortumab vedotin on the strength of Phase II data (from the EV-201 study) showing highly impressive response rates in a heavily pre-treated bladder cancer patient population and in subgroups of patients with a poor prognosis.

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Change and uncertainty at Biogen   

Elsewhere, Biogen announced this week the departure of Michael Ehlers, executive vice president of R&D. He will be replaced by Al Sandrock, who will combine the role with his current responsibilities as Biogen's chief medical officer.

Analysts described Ehlers' departure as unexpected, but not a major surprise in light of Biogen's recent R&D setbacks in the field of Alzheimer's disease. Investors hoping Biogen will be acquired in the near-term future should be more cautious towards this scenario, wrote analysts at Jefferies, while suggesting that Biogen's outlook is more uncertain then before.

Those willing to read something more into the departure of Ehlers may perceive an acquisition by Biogen as imminent. Does the head of R&D disagree with the direction the company is now looking to take? Only time will tell.

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Novartis taps Microsoft for AI expertise

Novartis has enhanced its aspiration to become a fully-fledged data science company by signing a multiyear collaboration with Microsoft to utilise artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance its research efforts and speed the discovery and development of treatments. Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan said "my aspiration is to lead in the space," adding "if we can scale the technology across the value chain of the company, that will, I hope, lead to a significant differentiation over time."

As part of the collaboration, the Swiss drugmaker will found an AI innovation laboratory, with an initial focus on the development of personalised treatments for macular degeneration, cell and gene therapy, in addition to drug design. The companies will develop co-working environments at Novartis' campuses in Switzerland and Ireland, as well as Microsoft's research laboratory in the UK.

"We believe that by applying AI methods to our large clinical and preclinical data sets, we should be able to identify the 'super-responding' patient populations, or patient populations that uniquely respond to different medicines, which then could lead to further testing," Narasimhan remarked. Along with leading to the development of more personalised medicines, the CEO suggested that this would allow Novartis to build "a better value proposition to healthcare systems."

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