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 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1302338).

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.