Bio Roundup: ASCO Combo Frenzy, Maine’s Free DNA Tests, Sema4 & More

Xconomy National — 

Over the next four days, the Second City will be the center of the biomedical world. The American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting in Chicago brings together thousands of researchers from across the globe to discuss the latest progress in the war against cancer. On tap this year: the crush of immunotherapy drug combinations, the latest in cell therapy, advances in targeted cancer drugs and much more. Xconomy has some prep work to get you ready for ASCO below, along with all the rest of the week’s biotech headlines. Let’s get to it.


—When ASCO kicks off today, immunotherapy combinations—experimental cocktails of drugs that fight tumors by boosting the immune system—will be in the spotlight. But with the frenzy to test as many combinations as possible, experts worry that the field is moving too fast, and that the glut of combination trials is bound to provoke a backlash.

—Another ASCO theme to watch: drugs that target tumor mutations, and acceptance of the commercial tests needed to find the right patients for them. Xconomy delved into the hurdles these tests face, and one of the high-profile efforts underway in Maine to help increase their adoption among community doctors.

—ASCO will also provide the latest updates on CAR-T cellular immunotherapy. One of the main players, Novartis (NYSE: NVS), posted encouraging early results in a study testing its CAR-T treatment, CTL119, along with blood cancer drug ibrutinib (Imbruvica) in leukemia patients. Novartis will divulge more information from the study at ASCO on Monday.

—Last week, the FDA approved Merck’s pembrolizumab (Keytruda) for all tumors with a specific genetic signature—a first for the agency. Speaking at the Precision Medicine World Conference at Duke University, top FDA drug evaluator Janet Woodcock explained how the Merck approval, as well as some other recent decisions, show how the FDA is changing the way it reviews drugs.

—A new report from QuintilesIMS (NYSE: Q) took a close look at the rising price of oncology care, and found that the global costs of cancer drugs and supportive therapies rose from $91 billion in 2012 to $113 billion in 2016.

—Lastly, The Wall Street Journal reported that Waltham, MA-based Tesaro (NASDAQ: TSRO), one of the cancer drugmakers unveiling data at ASCO this year, is now exploring a sale with a price tag that could top $9 billion.


—Sema4, a 300-employee genomics startup Eric Schadt has been incubating within the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, officially spun out of the New York institution this week with plans to raise cash to boost its capabilities.

—Kevin Bitterman, the founding CEO of Editas Medicine among other companies and a longtime partner at Boston-area venture capital firm Polaris Partners, was named a partner at nearby Atlas Venture.


—According to Reuters, Ohio Attorney General Mike deWine sued five drug makers, blaming them in part for his state’s worsening epidemic of opioid addiction. The five pharmas named in the suit are Purdue Pharma; Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals; a unit of Endo International (NASDAQ: ENDP); Cephalon, a unit of Teva Pharmaceutical (NYSE: TEVA); and Allergan (NYSE: AGN).

—Stock prices of Editas Medicine (NASDAQ: EDIT), CRISPR Therapeutics (NASDAQ: CRSP), and Intellia Therapeutics (NASDAQ: NTLA) dropped sharply after the publication of a Nature Methods article that described unintended effects stemming from the use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology. But as Xconomy noted two years ago, the possibility of “off-target effects” from use of these tools have long been a concern.


—Positive Phase 3 clinical trial results for a Teva migraine drug now put the Israel-based drugmaker on track to file for FDA approval later this year. A rival drug from Amgen is already under FDA review, and Alder Biopharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly are also in the hunt with similar therapies.

— Sunnyvale, CA-based Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ: ISRG) won FDA clearance for the da Vinci X Surgical System, the latest iteration of its robotic-assisted surgery platform, and will launch it the U.S. later this year.


—Mid-size drug developer Bicycle Therapeutics raised $52 million in a Series B round to bring an experimental cancer therapy into clinical trials.

—Menlo Park, CA-based Grail, which is developing a blood test to detect cancer at its earliest stages, announced a merger with Cirina, a China-based company founded by blood diagnostics pioneer Dennis Lo.

—Newark, CA-based Protagonist Therapeutics (NASDAQ: PTGX) inked a deal with Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) subsidiary Janssen Biotech to develop a drug treating inflammatory bowel disorders such as Crohn’s disease.

—ImmunoGen (NASDAQ: IMMU) got $30 million from Sanofi (NYSE: SNY) to amend a 2003 deal and give up its right to co-promote a group of experimental cancer drugs in the U.S..

—Array Biopharma (NASDAQ: ARRY) will get $31.6 million up front in a deal with Ono Pharmaceutical for partial rights to two of the Boulder, CO, biotech’s cancer drugs.

Frank Vinluan contributed to this report.