Category Archives: Pfizer

Some Adjacencies in Immuno-oncology

Some thoughts to fill the space between AACR and ASCO (and the attendant frenzied biopharma/biotech IO deals).

Classical immune responses are composed of both innate and adaptive arms that coordinate to drive productive immunity, immunological expansion, persistence and resolution, and in some cases, immunological memory. The differences depend on the “quality” of the immune response, in the sense that the immunity is influenced by different cell types, cytokines, growth factors and other mediators, all of which utilize diverse intracellular signaling cascades to (usually) coordinate and control the immune response. Examples of dysregulated immune responses include autoimmunity, chronic inflammation, and ineffective immunity. The latter underlies the failure of the immune system to identify and destroy tumor cells.

Let’s look at an immune response as seen by an immunologist, in this case to a viral infection:

 immune viral

Of note are the wide variety of cell types involved, a requirement for MHC class I and II responses, the presence of antibodies, the potential role of the complement cascade, direct lysis by NK cells, and the potentially complex roles played by macrophages and other myeloid cells.

In the immune checkpoint field we have seen the impact of very specific signals on the ability of the T cell immune response to remain productive. Thus, the protein CTLA4 serves to blunt de novo responses to (in this case) tumor antigens, while the protein PD-1 serves to halt ongoing immune responses by restricting B cell expansion in the secondary lymphoid organs (spleen, lymph nodes and Peyer’s Patches) and by restricting T cell activity at the site of the immune response, thus, in the tumor itself. Approved and late stage drugs in the immune checkpoint space are those that target the CTLA4 and PD-1 pathways, as has been reviewed ad nauseum. Since CTLA4 and PD-1 block T cell-mediated immune responses at different stages it is not surprising that they have additive or synergistic activity when both are targeted. Immune checkpoint combinations have been extensively reviewed as well.

We’ll not review those subjects again today.

If we step back from those approved drugs and look at other pathways, it is helpful to look for hints that we can reset a productive immune response by reengaging the innate and adaptive immune systems, perhaps by targeting the diverse cell types and/or pathways alluded to above.

One source of productive intelligence comes from the immune checkpoint field itself, and its’ never-ending quest to uncover new pathways that control immune responses. Indeed, entire companies are built on the promise of yet to be appreciated signals that modify immunity: Compugen may be the best known of these. It is fair to say however that we remain unclear how best to use the portfolio of checkpoint modulators we already have in hand, so perhaps we can look for hints there to start.

New targets to sift through include the activating TNF receptor (TNFR) family proteins, notably 4-1BB, OX40, and GITR; also CD40, CD27, TNFRSF25, HVEM and others. As discussed in earlier posts this is a tricky field, and antibodies to these receptors have to be made just so, otherwise they will have the capacity to signal aberrantly either because the bind to the wrong epitope, or they mediate inappropriate Fc-receptor engagement (more on FcRs later). At Biogen we showed many years ago that “fiddling” with the properties of anti-TNFR antibodies can profoundly alter their activity, and using simplistic screens of “agonist” activity often led to drug development disaster. Other groups (Immunex, Amgen, Zymogenetics, etc) made very similar findings. Careful work is now being done in the labs of companies who have taken the time to learn such lessons, including Amgen and Roche/Genentech, but also BioNovion in Amsterdam (the step-child of Organon, the company the originally created pembrolizumab), Enumeral in Cambridge US, Pelican Therapeutics, and perhaps Celldex and GITR Inc (I’ve not studied their signaling data). Of note, GITR Inc has been quietly advancing it’s agonist anti-GITR antibody in Phase 1, having recently completed their 8th dose cohort without any signs of toxicity. Of course this won’t mean much unless they see efficacy, but that will come in the expansion cohort and in Phase 2 trials. GITR is a popular target, with a new program out of Wayne Marasco’s lab at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute licensed to Coronado and Tg Therapeutics. There are many more programs remaining in stealth for now.

More worrisome are some of the legacy antibodies that made it into the clinic at pharma companies, as the mechanisms of action of some of these agonist antibodies are perhaps less well understood. But lets for the sake of argument assume that a correctly made anti-TNFR agonist antibody panel is at hand, where would we start, and why? One obvious issue we confront is that the functions of many of these receptors overlap, while the kinetics of their expression may differ. So I’d start by creating a product profile, and work backward from there.

An ideal TNFR target would complement the immune checkpoint inhibitors, an anti-CTLA4 antibody or a PD-1 pathway antagonist, and also broaden the immune response, because, as stated above, the immune system has multiple arms and systems, and we want the most productive response to the tumor that we can generate. While cogent arguments can be made for all of the targets mentioned, at the moment 4-1BB stands as a clear frontrunner for our attention.

4-1BB is an activating receptor for not only T cells but also NK cells, and in this regard the target provides us with an opportunity to recruit NK cells to the immune response. Of note, it has been demonstrated by Ron Levy and Holbrook Khort at Stanford that engagement of activating Fc receptors on NK cells upregulates 4-1BB expression on those cells. This gives us a hint of how to productively combine antibody therapy with anti-4-1BB agonism. Stanford is already conducting such trials. Furthermore we can look to the adjacent field of CAR T therapeutics and find that CAR T constructs containing 4-1BB signaling motifs (that will engage the relevant signaling pathway) confer upon those CAR T cells persistence, longevity and T cell memory – that jewel in the crown of anti-tumor immunity that can promise a cure. 4-1BB-containing CAR T constructs developed at the University of Pennsylvania by Carl June and colleagues are the backbone of the Novartis CAR T platform. It is a stretch to claim that the artificial CAR T construct will predict similar activity for an appropriately engineered anti-4-1BB agonist antibody, but it is suggestive enough to give us some hope that we may see the innate immune system (via NK cells) and an adaptive memory immune response (via activated T cells) both engaged in controlling a tumor. Pfizer and Bristol Myers Squibb have the most advanced anti-4-1BB agonist antibody programs; we’ll see if these are indeed best-in-class therapeutics as other programs advance.

Agonism of OX40, GITR, CD27, TNFRSF25 and HVEM will also activate T cells, and some careful work has been done by Taylor Schreiber at Pelican to rank order the impact of these receptors of CD8+ T cell memory (the kind we want to attack tumors). In these studies TNFRSF25 clearly is critical to support CD8 T cell recall responses, and may provide yet another means of inducing immune memory in the tumor setting. Similar claims have been made for OX40 and CD27. Jedd Wolchok and colleagues recently reviewed the field for Clinical Cancer Research if you wish to read further.

Looking again beyond T cells another very intriguing candidate TNFR is CD40. This activating receptor is expressed on B cells, dendritic cells, macrophages and other cell types involved in immune responses – it’s ligand (CD40L) is normally expressed on activated T cells. Roche/Genentech and Pfizer have clinical stage agonist anti-CD40 programs in their immuno-oncology portfolios. Agonist anti-CD40 antibodies would be expected to activated macrophages and dendritic cells, thus increasing the expression of MHC molecules, costimulatory proteins (e.g. B7-1 and B7-2) and adhesion proteins like VCAM-1 and ICAM-1 that facilitate cell:cell interactions and promote robust immune responses.

I mentioned above that interaction of antibodies with Fc receptors modulates immune cell activity. In the case of anti-CD40 antibodies, Pfizer and Roche have made IgG2 isotype antibodies, meaning they will have only weak interaction with FcRs and will not activate the complement cascade. Thus all of the activity of the antibody should be mediated by it’s binding to CD40. Two other agonist anti-CD40 antibodies in development are weaker agonists, although it is unclear why this is so; much remains to be learned regarding the ideal epitope(s) to target and the best possible FcR engagement on human cells. Robert Vonderheide and Martin Glennie tackled this subject in a nice review in Clinical Cancer Research in 2013 and Ross Stewart from Medimmune did likewise for the Journal of ImmunoTherapy of Cancer, so I won’t go on about it here except to say that it has been hypothesized that crosslinking via FcgRIIb mediates agonist activity (in the mouse). Vonderheide has also shown that anti-CD40 antibodies can synergize with chemotherapy, likely due to the stimulation of macrophages and dendritic cells in the presence of tumor antigens. Synergy with anti-CTLA4 has been demonstrated in preclinical models.

One of the more interesting CD40 agonist antibodies recently developed comes from Alligator Biosciences of Lund, Sweden. This antibody, ADC-1013, is beautifully characterized in their published work and various posters, including selection for picomolar affinity and activity at the low pH characteristic of the tumor microenvironment (see work by Thomas Tötterman, Peter Ellmark and colleagues). In conversation the Alligator scientists have stated that the antibody signals canonically, i.e. through the expected NF-kB signaling cascade. That would be a physiologic signal and a good sign indeed that the antibody was selected appropriately. Not surprisingly, this company is in discussion with biopharma/biotech companies about partnering the program.

Given the impact of various antibody/FcR engagement on the activity of antibodies, it is worth a quick mention that Roghanian et al have just published a paper in Cancer Cell showing that antibodies designed to block the inhibitory FcR, FcgRIIB, enhance the activity of depleting antibodies such as rituximab. Thus we again highlight the importance of this sometimes overlooked feature of antibody activity. Here is their graphical abstract:

 graphical abstract

The idea is that engagement of the inhibitory FcR reduces the effectiveness of the (in this case) depleting antibody.

Ok, moving on.

Not all signaling has to be canonical to be effective, and in the case of CD40 we see this when we again turn to CAR T cells. Just to be clear, T cells do not normally express CD40, and so it is somewhat unusual to see a CAR T construct containing CD3 (that’s normal) but also CD40. We might guess that there is a novel patent strategy at work here by Bellicum, the company that is developing the CAR construct. The stated goal of having a CD40 intracellular domain is precisely to recruit NF-kB, as we just discussed for 4-1BB. Furthermore, the Bellicum CAR T construct contains a signaling domain from MYD88, and signaling molecule downstream of innate immune receptors such as the TLRs that signal via IRAK1 and IRAK4 to trigger downstream signaling via NF-kB and other pathways.

Here is Bellicum’s cartoon:


If we look through Bellicum’s presentations (see their website) we see that they claim increased T cell proliferation, cytokine secretion, persistence, and the development of long-term memory T cells. That’s a long detour around 4-1BB but appears very effective.

The impact of innate immune signaling via typical TLR-triggered cascades brings us to the world of pattern-recognition receptors, and an area of research explored extensively by use of TLR agonists in tumor therapy. Perhaps the most notable recent entrant in this field is the protein STING. This pathway of innate immune response led to adaptive T cell responses in a manner dependent on type I interferons, which are innate immune system cytokines. STING signals through IRF3 and TBK1, not MYD88, so it is a parallel innate response pathway. Much of the work has come out of a multi-lab effort at the University of Chicago and has stimulated great interest in a therapeutic that might be induce T cell priming and also engage innate immunity. STING agonists have been identified by the University of Chicago, Aduro Biotech, Tekmira and others; the Aduro program is already partnered with Novartis. They published very interesting data on a STING agonist formulated as a vaccine in Science Translational Medicine on April 15th (2 weeks ago). Let’s remember however that we spent several decades waiting for TLR agonists to become useful, so integration of these novel pathways may take a bit of time.

This emerging mass of data suggest that the best combinations will not necessarily be those that combine T cell immune checkpoints (anti-CTLA4 + anti-PD-1 + anti-XYZ) but rather those that combine modulators of distinct arms of the immune system. Recent moves by biopharma to secure various mediators of innate immunity (see Innate Pharma’s recent deals) and mediators of the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment (see the IDO deals and the interest in Halozyme’s enzymatic approach) suggest that biopharma and biotech strategists are thinking along the same lines.

Targeting TNFRs with agonist antibodies for cancer therapy: 4-1BB, GITR, CD27

One of the puzzles in thinking about the available costimulatory receptors on T cells (and NK cells) is the unsettling number of them. Sticking just to the TNF receptor superfamily (TNFRSF) we have OX40 (discussed earlier), 4-1BB, GITR, CD27, and also the TNF receptors themselves (1 and 2), the lymphotoxin beta-receptor, HVEM, and TNFRSF25. There may be some I’ve forgotten. As noted in part 1 OX40, GITR, 4-1BB and CD27 are evolutionary cousins, as are their cognate ligands. Why did the immune system evolve such a complexity of T cell costimulators?

The answer is not entirely clear although the expression patterns and kinetics of expression suggest some rationale for understanding the number of different receptors. Also, as it’s understood that all the TNF receptors signal via NF-kB, Jun and p38, we might see these receptors either compete (for signaling proteins) or cooperate. All of the available genetic and pharmacologic data suggest they cooperate or even synergize, thereby powering the T cell response when needed. Since T cell responses (and immune responses generally) are so dangerous when dysregulated, the multiplicity of on and off switches presumably allows for redundancy of control.

As we said previously, OX40 comes on slow and easy, starting about 12 hours after TCR stimulation, and riding along for up to 96 hours. This is in vitro, cell culture data … so lets recognize that in vivo, in response to the chaotic presentation of antigen, the population of T cells is likely to be turning over, proliferating … so it’s unlikely we will see a finely tuned kinetic response in the real world, as regards the population of responding cells. Nonetheless we can focus on a single T cell, just the one. And we’ve guessed it will be expressing OX40 say from day 2 to day 5 after activation. Lets ignore the fact that activated effector T cells are likely dividing more rapidly than every 5 days, and just ask the simple question – of the other TNFSF receptors, what else is expressed and when, and on what T cell and other cell types?

Cue 4-1BB.

4-1BB is also expressed following T cell activation, and is expressed on other cell types also. 4-1BB expression come up much more quickly after T cell activation, within a few hours, and wanes after several days. This receptor is critical to supporting activated T cell proliferation, differentiation and survival. Expression on T cells may be coincident with OX40, but the consequences of engaging the receptor with an agonist antibody are different. 4-1BB preferentially supports the proliferation and survival of CD8+ T cells, although at least in some settings the activity of CD4+ T cells is also stimulated through 4-1BB. Much of the anti-tumor activity of 4-1BB agonist antibodies in preclinical studies can be traced to stimulation of NK cells although this depends of the tumor type and model used. Less well understood is the role on 4-1BB on other cells types. This receptor is also found on DCs, macrophages, granulocytes, and Tregs. Expression has also been described on vascular endothelium and on some tumor cells. The role of 4-1BB is confusing, with various studies showing expansion of the Treg subset and others suggesting that 4-1BB dampens Treg responses, perhaps via direct effects on DCs. The 4-1BB gene-knockout mouse shows aspects of autoimmune disorders (at least in the mouse strains tested), suggesting a role for 4-1BB in maintaining immune homeostasis following activation. 4-1BB knockout mice have trouble handling tumor challenge, and at least some spontaneously develop B cell lymphomas as they age. It is all a bit complicated.

Regardless, there are two antibodies that can provide some early clinical data. Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) started development of the BMS-663513 antibody quite early, before the immunotherapy wave had really gotten started. BMS-663513 is a specific anti-4-1BB agonist antibody, isotype IgG4. The antibody ran into toxicity issues in a phase 2 trial of metastatic melanoma in 2011, leading to a halt of three trials with that antibody. As the toxicity was correlated with dose, BMY has restarted the clinical campaign with BMS-663513, now called urelumab to establish a safe and efficacious dose. A monotherapy trial is being run in patients with advanced/metastatic solid tumors or with relapsed/refractory Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL). A second trial in NHL is being run in combination with rituximab treatment. A third trial in advanced/metastatic colorectal and head and neck cancers is being run in combination with cetuximab (anti-EGFR). Pfizer’s (PFE) PF-05082566 is an agonist anti-4-1BB antibody (IgG2 isotype). One trial is listed at, a 3×3 dose escalation phase 1 trial run as monotherapy in patients with advanced cancers, and as combination therapy with rituximab in NHL.

At the June ASCO meeting there will be updates on both the BMY and PFE programs. BMY has a presentation focused on mechanism of action and biomarker analyses. Abstract #3017 outlines the goal of monitoring the immune status of 4 patients prior to and during the phase 1 study of urelumab (BMS-663513: clinical trial NCT01471210). The antibody was given every 3 weeks and the analysis presents results through 3 cycles. PBMCs were isolated from whole blood, and stimulated for 4 hours with PMA/ionomycin to activate lymphocytes. There was an increase in CD8 T cells up to 41% and NK cells up to 62%. CD4 T cells decreased by as much as 23% and regulatory CD4 T cells decreased by as much as 18% comparing the 3rd cycle to baseline. The results are consistent with a preferential impact on CD8+ T cells and NK cells. The level of the cytokines GM-CSF and IFNgamma were increased.

The PFE study (abstract #3007) describes very early data from clinical trial NCT01307267. Patients received PF-05082566 IV every 4 weeks (one cycle) with an 8 week period for assessment of dose-limiting toxicity (DLT) and radiographic analysis of tumor burden (RECIST 1.1). 27 patients were up to 0.3 mg/kg, the highest dose reported in the abstract. The majority of patients had either colorectal cancer (n=11) or Merkel cell carcinoma (n=6), the rest were a collection of solid tumor patients and 2 patients with B cell lymphoma.  25/27 patients completed the DLT assessment period (first cycle). No DLT was established but only 7 patients remain on therapy. All discontinuations from treatment were due to disease progression. A best overall response of stable disease was observed in 6 patients. No duration data is supplied.

These two early trials suggest that safe dose levels can be achieved, that a mechanism of action can be confirmed (urelumab: expansion of CD8+ T cells and NK cells), and that some clinical response can be observed (PF-05082566: stable disease). That’s a pretty good picture coming out of Phase 1. As preclinical data suggest that 4-1BB is most effective in various combination formats, it will be interesting to monitor advances in the rituximab and cetuximab co-therapy arms of these trials. Several potent combinations arising in the preclinical literature include 4-1BB with immune checkpoint inhibition (CTLA4 or the PD-1 pathway) and in combination with agonist OX40 antibody therapy.

Lets get back to the Treg cells, whose function is to suppress immune responses, primarily those of CD4+ T cells. These express 4-1BB constitutively, although it’s not clear how or if they are responding to treatment with agonist anti-4-1BB antibodies. Let’s turn to a different pathway known to have a profound effect on Tregs, the Glucocorticoid-Induced TNFR Related gene (GITR). GITR was first identified as a regulatory T-cell marker and was shown to play a critical role in breaking T cell tolerance by direct suppression of Treg activity. The preclinical evaluation of GITR produced some very striking data, including in combination settings in which anti-GITR antibodies essentially synergized with other immune checkpoint therapeutics to eliminate established tumors. Such combinations have included PD-1 blockade and CTLA4 blockade. GITR agonism is also synergistic with chemotherapy in preclinical models. Clinical development of GITR antibodies has been slow. A program initiated at TolerX and reborn at GITR, Inc., is recruiting for a phase 1 trial in advanced melanoma and other solid tumors. The antibody is TRX518 (NCT01239134). Merck is advancing a phase 1 study with the anti-GITR antibody MK-4166, although this trial (NCT02132754) is not yet recruiting patients. Review articles have mentioned an ongoing clinical program at MSKCC – this is one of the three sites enrolling patients in the TRX518 trial.

To the extent that the driving mechanism of action (MOA) of GITR stimulation is shown to be downregulation of Treg activity, this pathway should be a good candidate for combination therapy with 4-1BB, OX40 or CD27 agonists (see below) as well as with the CTLA4 and PD-1 pathway antagonists. If the MOA in human cancer patients is different or more complex than proposed, different combinations may be more or less attractive.

One last receptor – CD27.

The costimulatory molecule CD27 is constitutively expressed on most effector T cells, memory B cells, and an NK cell subset. So its expression may also overlap with those of the other receptors. CD27 appears to be important for sustained T cell effector function and also the development of T cell memory. CD27 is a marker of memory T cells, conversely, it is low or absent on Tregs. More broadly, CD27 supports germinal center formation that drives B cell maturation and the differentiation of plasma cells that produce high affinity antibodies, and is also important in driving the cytolytic activity of some NK cells.

Although there is a large preclinical literature on CD27 and its ligand CD70, there are few antibodies in clinical development. There are several historical explanations for this I think. CD70 is expressed at high levels on certain tumor types, particularly renal cell carcinoma (RCC). Much effort has gone into the development of cell-depleting antibodies targeting CD70. This expression pattern also called into question the relevance of CD27 in controlling tumor growth, as the ligand would be expected to stimulate immune responses. We now know that RCC and other solid tumors expresses high levels of PD-L1, and likely disables immune responses via this pathway. Not surprisingly then, one of the ongoing clinical efforts is a combination trial of nivolumab, the anti-PD-1 antibody from BMY with CDX-1127, an anti-CD27 antibody from Celldex (CLDX) in a collaboration announced by the 2 companies last week. In the meantime we have 2 abstracts from CLDX at ASCO in June to look forward to. In a 3×3 phase 1 dose escalation study of B cell lymphoma patients the drug was well tolerated with weekly IV dosing, and there were signs of clinical response, including a durable complete response in one patient with advanced refractory disease (abstract #3024; clinical trial NCT01460134). In the same trial, solid tumor patients were treated in a dose escalation phase and then an expansion phase (RCC and melanoma). The drug was well tolerated, there were preliminary signs of clinical response, and measureable activation of the immune system (Abstract #3027). With the potential to support memory T cell differentiation, CD27 may provide an important additional signal to drive long term tumor control. We’ll have to wait and see.

So, we have 4 receptors with overlapping activities and we have multiple antibodies in various stages of development. There will be plenty to learn about these targets and their roles in the future of combination immunotherapy. One of the most promising paths forward is the analysis of immune checkpoint and costimulatory proteins on tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs). It seems very likely that the makeup of the tumor cell defense against the immune system will diverge between tumor types, and perhaps between patients with the same tumor types, or even with the same patient tumor at different times, or in different metastatic locations. Profiling TILs, and perhaps sentinel lymph nodes, for the expression patterns of lymphocytes and antigen presenting cells is likely to help guide combination therapy.

We’ll come back to that. And we’ve not forgotten those NK cells either.

stay tuned.

Merck’s MK-3475 Deals: Assets, Risk and Innovation in Immunotherapy Pipelines

The recent news that Merck will aggressively partner the anti-PD-1 program MK-3475 with competitors Pfizer and Amgen, and biotech Incyte, was a welcome recognition that the immunotherapy landscape is too vast and complex for most companies to handle alone. Companies that will succeed in this space over the long haul will position themselves to “sample” many assets and technologies, particularly in combination settings. Why? First, because many combination therapies will fail or be too toxic to use, second, therapeutic modalities will evolve rapidly or be replaced, and third, personalized oncology practice will fragment patient populations.

Merck’s anti-PD-1 antibody MK-3475 is an example of the first generation of immune checkpoint inhibitors, for which we have clinical data. Other first generation therapeutics are ipilimumab (Vervoytm) approved for the treatment of metastatic melanoma, and nivolumab, an anti-PD-1 antibody moving toward regulatory submission this year, both from Bristol Myers Squibb. There are other anti-CTLA4 and anti-PD-1 pathway antibodies in clinical development, just a bit behind, including antibodies to PD-L1 from Roche (RG7446) and Astra Zeneca (MEDI-4736) and to CTLA4 from Pfizer (tremelimumab). It is fair to say that Merck has generated intense buzz around the MK-3475 program, driven by excellent clinical data and an aggressive approval strategy.

If we look over the details of the Merck collaborations we see a convergence of technologies around combination therapy. The Merck/Amgen collaboration centers on developing the oncolytic vaccine T-Vec in combination with MK-3475. The therapeutic hypothesis is relatively straightforward. The immune response to vaccines built using tumor antigens is blunted, in part, because of the immunosuppressive signals induced by PD-L1 expression on tumor cells. So blocking PD-L1/PD-1 mediated immunosuppression may allow a more robust immune response to anti-tumor vaccination strategies. I’ll note here that Amgen recently reported Phase 3 results from their T-Vec trial in metastatic melanoma, hitting the primary clinical endpoint of durable response but just missing the secondary endpoint of improving patient overall survival, which is an endpoint that the immune checkpoint inhibitors do hit. So Amgen has clear motivation here to combine T-Vec with immune checkpoint inhibitors. In addition to the collaboration with Merck, Amgen also has a collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb to clinical evaluate the combination of ipilimumab and T-Vec in metastatic melanoma.

The collaboration between Merck and Incyte is also focused on disabling immunosuppressive signaling, in this case as mediated by inhibition of indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO), a pathway that regulates T cell responses by depleting tryptophan from the local tumor environment. IDO also appears to regulate T cell activity in lymph nodes draining the tumor site. IDO inhibitors promote T cell effector function while reducing the immunosuppressive activity of T regulatory cells. Incyte’s IDO inhibitor INCB24360 is in Phase 2 clinical trials in metastatic melanoma and in ovarian cancer. In this case then we are considering the potential of dual immune checkpoint inhibition, blocking PD-1 and IDO simultaneously. Incyte already has a Phase 1/2 trial in metastatic melanoma of INCB24360 in combination with ipilimumab and a Phase 1 trial in late stage melanoma in combination with a tumor vaccine.

Merck’s MK-3474 collaboration with Pfizer is very interesting. A phase 1/2 combination trila with axitinib a VEGFR-selective multi-kinase inhibitor (Inlytatm), will be run in renal cell carcinoma. Axitinib is approved as second line therapy in kidney cancer, but the drug has limited potential as a long term therapy and has struggled to distinguish itself from the older multi-kinase inhibitor sorafenib (Nexavartm, from Bayer/Onyx). It is very hard to guess what such a trial will yield, but such combinations of targeted therapies (kinase inhibition in this case) and immune-checkpoint modulators will have to be tried. A recent example, combining ipilimumab and the BRAF inhibitor vemurafenib (Zelboraftm, from Roche) in metastatic melanoma induced unacceptable liver toxicity and was stopped after only four patients had received the combination. Ipilimumab and nivolumab have very different toxicity profiles, and attempts at different combinations are certainly warranted.

The collaboration between Merck and Pfizer also includes development of the combination of MK-3475 with Pfizer’s PF-05082566, an agonist anti-4-1BB antibody. 4-1BB is a potent immune stimulatory pathway that acts by boosting T cell activity. Of interest, PF-05082566 is already in a Phase 1 solid tumor (as monotherapy) and B cell lymphoma (as dual therapy, with Roche’s anti-CD20 mAb rituximab). Finally, Merck and Pfizer have an second agreement to investigate the combination of MK-3475 with palbociclib, a CDK4/6 inhibitor that recently showed encouraging data in advanced breast cancer, although without yet demonstrating an impact on overall survival. These types of combinations are designed to give that precise boost in efficacy, allowing at least some patients the benefit of long term responses that impact disease progression and survival.

Merck’s internal immunotherapy pipeline is thin but as we noted the other day they are beginning to target other pathways, in part via the Agenus/4-Antibody platform deal.

I titled this post “Risks, Assets and Innovation in Immunotherapy Pipelines” because Merck’s efforts around MK-3475 illustrate some clear themes in this space. One, already mentioned, is that going into this space solo is something no company, except perhaps Bristol Myers Squibb (BMY), can contemplate. Even BMY reached outside the company recently to license an anti-KIR antibody from Innate Pharma and to partner with Five Prime Therapeutics on antibody discovery. Why is BMY in such a dominant position? They were innovative (CTLA4 biology) and they have multiple assets including antibodies to CTLA4, PD-1, LAG-3, KIR, 4-1BB and PD-L1, with more on the way. Note that I’m not saying that BMY’s anti-PD-1 antibody nivolumab is better or worse than Merck’s MK-3475, nor do I much care which gets approval first, a race that lots of folks are watching. No one horse will win this field, which brings us back to assets and pipelines.

Beyond BMY, companies like Merck are aggressively partnering because as the immunotherapy field was developing they were less innovative, took fewer risks, and therefore have fewer assets in this space. Companies like Pfizer and Novartis that spent the last decade chasing one oncogenic mutation after another down the rabbit hole found themselves very quickly on the outside looking in. They are now buying and partnering to build portfolios.

And that’s just fine; further, this should be a “pull” environment that motivates the biotech community to generate an abundance of assets. Small biotechs are classically trying to be innovative (to differentiate), take risks (to return dollars on investment) and therefore develop new assets. These are the fundamentals that should drive further expansion of the immunotherapy portfolio across the industry. So how is biotech doing in this new landscape? It is a mixed picture. There is a dearth of new first and second-generation immunotherapeutics, a space that I believe should be asset-rich. This is why Five Prime, 4-Antibody and Costim were all able to do healthy deals relatively early in their development – there is just not a lot of competition.

What happened? Why aren’t there half a dozen anti-PD-1 and anti-PD-L1 antibodies looking for partners, or a dozen agonist antibodies to 4-1BB, OX40, and GITR, and multiple inhibitors of TIM-3 and Lag3? I think this is a case of history repeating itself. After remicade and etanercept were approved, biotechs ran from the TNF inhibitor space, all believing, incorrectly, that they would never be able to compete. Seven TNF inhibitors later, this class still dominates the rheumatoid arthritis market. I wonder if small biotechs are reluctant to follow-on with additional antibodies to the first and second-generation immune checkpoint space because they think they are “too late” – in other words, the value proposition is too risky. If so, I believe they are wrong. The appetite is clearly there, with large biopharma and antibody engineering companies hungry for assets to pull into their pipelines.

Instead, many small biotechs are trying to stay well ahead on the innovation curve, chasing new targets. The problem, as always, is that no one wants to fund that work, because the risk is very high. So the answer is to try to balance innovation and risk in order to create assets that investors will fund. Its a tricky proposition, but essential to biotech’s ability to continue contributing to immunotherapy, and driving value creation. That said, there are some terrific innovative programs out there, in the hands of focused and smart small companies. In the meantime, there are more companies seeking validated assets than there are good programs developing these assets. SugarCone Biotech spends a lot of time building strategic programs for biotechs and a lot of time matching quality assets with partners and investors, so we see this first- hand.

Why else would we need more assets? Straight off, the existing immune checkpoint antibodies ipilimumab and nivolumab induce some terrific responses, but the response rates could be improved. Second, development of the existing combination therapy of ipilimumab and nivolumab has been tricky, with excellent efficacy but troubling toxicity. Note here that BMY can tinker with the dosage and dose schedule of each agent in such combination trials, because they own them both. Less asset-rich companies seeking to develop combination therapy strategies either have to partner their programs (Merck, as discussed here, but AbbVie might be another good example), or acquire everything they can afford (Novartis).

We’ll be watching closely.

stay tuned.

Three high-altitude take aways from AACR14

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 2014 meeting last week was high energy and high impact. We will dive into particular talks and specific pathways and indications in later posts, in the meantime I wanted to mention a few key themes.

1) Immunotherapy Versus The World.  That’s a deliberate overstatement of a subtle shift in emphasis from last year’s big meetings, where combinations of immunotherapy with just about anything else were the hot topic. This year there were several talks which emphasized the futility of chasing oncogenic pathways and all of their resistance mutations, one after the other, as opposed to letting the immune system do the work. However, it seems to me overly optimistic to believe that immune modulation can defeat a high percentage of patient  tumors on its own, as some speakers acknowledged. Combinations remain necessary although we will have to work past some notable failures in combo trials, such as the liver toxicity seen in the ipilimumab + vemurafenib combination phase 1, discussed briefly by Antonio Ribas               (see

2) Immunotherapy Versus Itself.  In the ultimate battle of the titans, we see different immunotherapeutic modalities squaring off. This is a theme we’ve touched on before in this space, but the  competition is getting heated. In some indications, the leukemias, lymphomas, perhaps melanoma and some other solid tumors, there is an abundance of therapeutic choices, and the hard question of which therapy best suits which patient will ultimately need to be addressed outside of the context of clinical trial enrollment. Several talks really brought this message home. Roger Perlmutter of Merck (and before that, Amgen) envisions an important role for multiple immune therapies including bi-specific antibodies, chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), and immune checkpoint modulators like Merck’s anti-PD-1 antibody MK-3475.  For B cell lymphoma for example, there is blintumumab (Amgen), a potent bi-specific that redirects T cells to CD19+ tumor cells (and normal B cells), and there is CTL019, a CAR therapeutic which does much the same thing. The therapeutic profiles and toxicity differ, but the general idea is the same. One big difference is that while CTL019 drives T cell expansion and the development of long term anti-tumor memory, the bi-specific does not. Which is better? We don’t know yet. He did not mention that one might do well trying a course of BTK inhibition plus anti-CD20 antibody therapy, perhaps with restricted chemotherapy first e.g ibrutinib plus rituximab and chemo (R-BR or R-F). That choice comes down to efficacy, then toxicity, and eventually cost. Efficacy seems to be a home run with the CAR therapeutics, although these may run into trouble in the area of toxicity and cost calculation. Renier Brentjens discussed the CAR therapies being developed under the Juno Therapeutics umbrella. Acute lymphoid leukemia (ALL) can be treated with CAR 19-28z modified T cells to achieve a >80% complete response rate with >70% of patients showing no minimal residual disease, an outstanding result. However, 30% of treated patients end up in the ICU due to cytokine release syndrome and other toxicity, and recently patients in the ALL trials have died from unanticipated tox causes. Juno stopped 5 trials of their CAR technology last week due to toxicity. Apparently one patient died of cardiovascular complications and another of CNS complications (severe uncontrolled seizures) – it was hard to nail down as Dr Brentjens had gone off his prepared talk for these remarks which were off the cuff, so comment please if you have better info on this. Carl June discussed Dr Brentjens’ presentation, noting that the clinical results were really quite striking, and contrasting the CD28 motif-based CARs with the 4-1BB-based CARs (as designed by Dr June with U Penn and licensed to Novartis). He also stressed that in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) they have had patients who have failed up to 10 prior therapies, including rituximab and/or ibrutinib, and these patients have responded to CAR treatment. That’s very impressive data. The roadblocks to widespread use of CAR therapy however are large and include the toxicity, the “boutique” nature of the current protocols, the cost. Perhaps, Dr June suggested, CAR will end up as third line therapy, reserved for salvage therapy. I for one hope not.

Also in the immunotherapy space were hot new targets (e.g. CD47, OX40, GITR), advances on the vaccine front, and a few surprises. We’ll update soon.

3) The Medicinal Chemists Have Been Busy.  Not to be drowned out by the Immunotherapy tidal wave, small molecule therapies targeting specific oncogenic pathways continue to be developed and show promise. Most readers will be aware of the high stakes showdown (so billed) between Novartis, Pfizer and Lilly in the field of specific CDK4/6 inhibitors – in addition to bringing forward some really nice phase 2 data (we’ll discuss these another time) this “showdown” also illustrates that current portfolio strategy drives a lot of overlapping effort by different companies. As expected, much of the action is moving downstream in the signaling pathways, so we saw some data on MEK1 inhibitors and ERK1/2 inhibition. There were some new BTK inhibitors, nice advances in the epigenetics space, and some novel PI3K inhibitors. All grist for the mill.

stay tuned.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors – Part 2

In part 1 our focus was primarily on the PD-1 and CTLA4 pathways, where the biology is well understood and the drug development advanced. See that post here. In part 2 we look at drug development for some newer immune checkpoint targets, and this will drive us a little deeper into the scientific rationale for some of the less known pathways.

 I would argue that a good deal of the excitement around some recent deals (Novartis/CoStim and Agenus/4-Antibody) really is driven by the opportunity to get in early with novel targets. While the CoStim portfolio included PD-1 pathway related IP, I think the fact that this deal was so early stage suggests that novel LAG-3 and TIM-3 IP had a lot to do with driving interest. Similarly, emerging details from the BIOCIO conference indicate that Agenus (NASDAQ: AGEN), a somewhat obscure company, acquired novel LAG-3, TIM-3, OX40 and GITR antibodies as well as novel CTLA4 and PD-1 antibodies in its’ 4-Antibody acquisition. It would seem that this company, nominally a cancer vaccine company, is taking a huge leap forward by acquiring assets that could be combined with cancer vaccines. Barron’s labeled this a “genius move”, and I agree. This should make Agenus itself an attractive acquisition candidate. The Smith On Stocks Blog has much more on this (

 So I think it make sense to take on these targets one by one, do a quick update on the therapeutic rationale, and see who is leading the pack. Later we’ll fold this into a landscape analysis to try to understand where the large companies are heading.

We can start with a few targets that are represented by drugs in clinical development. Bristol-Myers Squib (NYSE: BMY), already loaded with anti-CTLA4 and anti-PD-1 programs, is moving their LAG-3 antibody ahead in both monotherapy and combination therapy trials. LAG-3 (lymphocyte activation gene, CD223) is a negative regulator of cell activation. It is expressed on various activated lymphoid cells, including T cells and NK cells that mediate tumor cell killing. The mechanism of action is the binding of LAG-3 to the MHC Class II complex expressed on antigen-presenting cells (B cells, monocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells, and other cell types). The high affinity binding event blocks cell proliferation and effector functions. LAG-3 is also an important mediator of the immune suppressive function of regulatory T cells. Of tremendous interest is the finding that LAG-3 is synergistic with other down-regulatory pathways, specifically PD-1 and TIM-3. As we will see this is driving much of the work on the design of combination therapy testing.

BMS-986016 is an anti-LAG-3 antibody from BMY currently in phase 1 testing in solid tumors and in B cell lymphomas. A very interesting study is NCT01968109: Safety Study of Anti-LAG-3 With and Without Anti-PD-1 in the Treatment of Solid Tumors. This is a Phase 1 dose escalation study of BMS-986016 alone or in combination of one of two defined doses of nivolumab (anti-PD-1). The primary endpoint is safety (AEs, SAEs, fatalities, lab abnormalities). There is also a cardiovascular risk assessment (QTc interval) among the secondary endpoints. Otherwise the secondary endpoints cover PK and exposure, immunogenicity, and RECIST defined tumor responses.

The point is that this is an instructive example of rational combination immunotherapy being investigated at Phase 1.

Other LAG-3 antibodies of potential use in oncology include Immutep’s IMP701, an antagonist antibody. IMP701 ought not to be confused with their depleting anti-LAG-3 antibody IMP731 (partnered with GSK for treatment of autoimmune disease) nor with their activating LAG-3-Fc fusion protein IMP321 (and how this thing works I have no idea). We have already mentioned that CoStim and 4-Antibody had LAG-3 programs and IP, but these would be preclinical. Somewhat better known for its’ anti-CD70 mAb (see below), arGEN-X also lists TIM-3, LAG-3 and VISTA antibodies in its’ preclinical portfolio. No doubt there are other early stage programs, they just are not readily visible yet. I wager that we will see many more of these popping up in the poster aisles at AACR and ASCO this year.

Two proteins related to PD-L1, B7-H3 and B7-H4, are also T cell inhibitory ligands. Both proteins are expressed on tumor cells and expression of B7-H3 or B7-H4 correlates with poor outcome for some tumor types. Both B7-H3 and B7-H4 are normally expressed on myeloid lineage cells including monocytes and dendritic cells. Preclinical tumor model data have supported efficacy with blocking antibodies to these ligands in vivo. The mechanism of action of these ligands is not well understood, as the receptors are not known, or at least cannot be confirmed across different laboratories

The Macrogenics (NASDAQ: MGNX) antibody to B7-H3 has reached clinical development. The phase 1 study in patients with advanced carcinoma, melanoma, or glioblastoma that overexpresses B7-H3. The antibody, MGA271, is licensed to Servier; Macrogenics recently received a milestone payment indicating that the expansion part of the Phase 1 trial had been initiated. Five Prime recently disclosed novel antibodies to B7-H3 and B7-H4 along with TIM-3 and VISTA, as mentioned previously.

With TIM-3 we have a landscape that is a bit earlier than LAG-3 – the excitement about this pathway is driven by the preclinical tumor model data and the translational medicine data. Like LAG-3, TIM-3 has been identified as co-expressed with PD-1, in particular on tumor infiltrating lymphocytes. Genetic data (knockout, transgenic, etc) clearly indicate that TIM-3 is an important immunoregulatory pathway. This is true as well of CTLA4, PD-1 and LAG-3 – the number of “brakes” on the system is remarkable and hints at how dangerous the immune system can be when it is unregulated, as it is in autoimmune, inflammatory, allergic and similar diseases. One of the interesting observations about TIM-3 is that it is ectopically expressed by some tumors and also by dendritic cells associated with tumors, i.e. within the tumor microenvironment. Therefore by blocking TIM-3 in the tumor setting, multiple responses may contribute to efficacy. A confounding issue in the TIM-3 field is the identification of the relevant ligand for TIM-3, with a number of ligands having been proposed (galectin-9, phosphatidylserine (PS), HMGB1). The binding motif for PS is well defined, while binding to the other proposed ligands is less well understood. In particular, TIM-3 and galectin-9 activities seem distinct, at least as far as we can understand from the published genetic data.

The proteins mentioned so far (CTLA4, CD28, CD80, CD86, PD-1, PD-L1, PD-L2, B7-H3, B7-H4, LAG-3, TIM-3, VISTA and TIGIT) are all members of the immunoglobulin (Ig) superfamily of proteins. Two additional protein families of critical importance in regulating immune responses are the TNF and TNF receptor families. Again the leader in this field, clinically at least, is BMY. The antibody BMS-663513 (urelumab) is an agonist anti-4-1BB antibody that functions by stimulating T cell activation. 4-1BB (CD137) is best known for contributing a signaling moiety to the CAR-T constructs (a discussion for another day). BMS-663513 is now in phase 1/2 testing in lymphoma patients. The antibody had previously completed a phase 2 study in melanoma, but that program was put on clinical hold following dose dependent liver toxicity. The new studies utilize lower doses, as a very low dose appears to be efficacious. An important differentiating feature of anti-4-1BB is the apparent ability to eradicate established tumors, at least in some patients. With this is mind it is encouraging to look forward to combination treatment studies. Pfizer also has an anti-4-1BB antibody in development, PF-05082566. This antibody is in a very interesting phase 1 clinical trial in solid tumors and B cell lymphomas, the latter patients being treated with and without rituximab co-therapy.

4-1BB biology is well understood, and agonist stimulation of this receptor induces CD8+ T cell activation, interferon gamma secretion, secretion of cytolytic compounds and recruitment of helper T cells. Of interest, 4-1BB is only expressed on T cells that have been activated through the T cell receptor and CD28, and so is specifically expressed on those T cells that would potentially have anti-tumor activity.

CD27 expression is also induced upon T cell activation, and the critical role of this receptor in immune responses is shown by patients who lack function CD27, as these patients are grossly immunosuppressed. The role of CD27 is subtly different from 4-1BB in that this receptor seems critical to activated T cell survival. Celldex (NASDAQ: CLDX) has developed an agonist anti-CD27 antibody, CDX-1127. In pre-clinical models, CDX-1127 had anti-tumor effects due to enhanced T cell activation. In addition various cancers, particularly B and T cell lymphomas, can express CD27 at high levels and the antibody may be able to such tumor cells directly and activate immune cell killing. Early data is promising, with no obvious toxicities.

The ligand for CD27 is CD70. Paradoxically (and stretching the limits of our understanding of these systems) CD70 is expressed at very high levels on a variety of tumor types, including solid tumors and hematopoietic cancers. Therefore, antibodies targeting CD70 to effect tumor cell killing have been developed. The most advanced of these are antibody drug conjugates, e.g. SGN-75 (SGEN) and MDX-1203 (BMY); there are other coming e.g. from Ambrx. In January. arGEN-X started a Phase 1b expansion study with ARGX-110, a novel cytotoxic anti-CD70 antibody. There are undoubtedly other antibodies in development.

A critical pathway found on cells that interact with T cells (dendritic cells, macrophages, B cells) is the CD40 pathway. Although early work is in the monotherapy setting, it is reasonable to speculate that agonists to CD40 would complement other approaches, such as cancer vaccines and modulators of T cell responses. Dacetuzumab, developed by Seattle Genetics (SGEN) was discontinued in phase 2b. The reason was unclear but appeared to involve both toxicity and futility analysis. Toxicities included cytokine release syndrome (common) and thrombosis (< 5% of patients), some liver toxicity and cytopenias. Most of these toxicities could be controlled with prophylactic agents. CP-870,893 (Pfizer) has completed Phase 1 clinical trials in melanoma, pancreatic cancer and other solid tumors. The current development in the US of CP-870,893 seems limited to trials being sponsored by U Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. Of note, one of these trials is in combination with the anti-CTLA4 mAb, tremelimumab. The antagonist anti-CD40 antibody lucatumumab (NVS) competed a phase 1 trial in refractory follicular lymphoma in May of 2012. Here the hypothesis was that the bound antibody would activate cytotoxic killing of CD40+ tumor cells. This Phase 1 trial was in combination with chemotherapy (bendamustine).

At this point I would characterize the development of CD40 modulators in oncology as stalled, and awaiting a better understanding of the best antibody activity (and associated isotype) to use, the appropriate dose, and the most relevant tumor types.

Two final pathways to mention in this section are the OX40 and GITR pathways, the subject of headlines when Agenus bought out 4-Antibody. Several clinical stage therapeutics have been developed for these targets.

OX-40 (CD134) is another T cell survival pathway, activated downstream of CD28, and essential for the induction of anti-apoptotic proteins that keep activated T cells alive and functional. It may also be required for the establishment of the memory T cell pool. Stimulation of OX40 by the OX40-L or by agonist anti-OX40 antibodies enhances T cell responses.

AZN/Medimmune has developed a murine anti-OX40 agonist antibody designed to stimulate the immune system and block tumor suppression of the immune response. AZN’s OX40 collaborations are complex. AZN/Medimmune has partnered with AgonOx, a tech transfer spinoff from the Providence Cancer Center in Portland, OR. There are several clinical trials of anti-OX40 therapy underway at the Providence Cancer Center. AZN/Medimmune has also partnered with the Cancer Research Institute and Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research specifically to undertake clinical trials evaluating immunotherapy combinations including the MedImmune antibodies to OX40, and PD-L1 (MED14736), together with other agents within the CRI/Ludwig portfolio and the Cancer Vaccine Collaborative network of clinical immunologists and oncologists. There was one clinical trial co-sponsored by AgonOx and the Ludwig Institute, to study anti-OX40 in combination with ipilimumab. However, this trial has been suspended. According to AZN/Medimmune, the partnership trials are designed to complement their in-house clinical development effort.

GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) gained rights to an OX40 antibody preclinical program from the MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Institute for Applied Cancer Sciences, as part of a deal focused on immune checkpoint antibodies that can trigger immune responses against cancer.

GITR was the other target grabbing headlines in light of the Agenus/4-Antibody deal. GITR is yet another cell surface receptor that is involved in amplifying T cell responses. It’s mechanism of action is distinct, in that GITR inhibits the suppressive activity of T-regulatory cells, thereby releasing effector T cells from active suppression. Secondarily GITR signaling is a pro-survival pathway for activated T cells.

GITR, Inc., is a biotech company spun out when Tolerx went under. The company is developing TRX518, an anti-GITR agonist antibody designed to enhance the immune response to cancer cells. A Phase 1 clinical trial in melanoma and solid tumors is currently recruiting after being released from clinical hold.

A few thoughts about these newer pathways. One is that some of them are very potent indeed (4-1BB, CD27) and we will have to watch carefully for toxicity issues. A second is that we can begin to outline rational combinations based on the biology of the pathways. For example, the CTLA4 and PD-1 antagonists may pair well with treatments that induce tumor cell death, thereby releasing novel tumor antigens that the newly stimulated immune system can then recognized. Some of the downstream T cell or antigen-presenting cell activators (CD40, OX40 as examples) may be better suited for use with cancer vaccine therapies.

There are two more classes of immune checkpoint modulators to consider. One consists of the IDO inhibitors. The second consists of the innate immune response modulators (TLRs, KIR, NKG2A). There are very exciting companies working in these areas, and these will be the subject of the next update.

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stay tuned.