ZymoGenetics Melanoma Drug Shows Survival Data, Adding More Juice to Bristol’s Pipeline

ZymoGenetics has some shareholders out there wondering if the company has agreed to be acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb for too low of a price. Today there’s a small, but potentially important piece of data that might make a few more investors pause about whether now is really the time to sell.

The Seattle-based biotech company (NASDAQ: ZGEN) said today that patients who got one of its experimental drugs for melanoma that has spread through the body survived a median time of 12.4 months. More than half (53 percent) of the 40 patients who enrolled in the study of IL-21 were still alive after one year, the company said.

While this is just a result from a preliminary study, and it’s impossible to really compare this drug to another treatment because the study didn’t randomly assign patients to a control group, it’s still an eye-opening result. Metastatic melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer that has spread through the body, is one of the toughest malignancies to treat. Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) dominated the headlines (and overshadowed ZymoGenetics) earlier this year at the American Society of Clinical Oncology when one of Bristol’s experimental drugs was found to help metastatic melanoma patients survive a median of 10 months, compared with 6.4 months for people in a control group. About 8,700 people in the U.S. die each year from metastatic melanoma, according to the American Cancer Society.

“The median overall survival of 12.4 months in the Phase 2 study with IL-21 in advanced melanoma patients is very encouraging,” said Eleanor Ramos, ZymoGenetics’s chief medical officer, in a statement. “We look forward to further results.”

I wrote about how ZymoGenetics showed some more preliminary data from this same IL-21 study back at the ASCO meeting in June, where Bristol was the belle of the ball. ZymoGenetics, back then, had data saying that its treatment shrank tumors in about 23 percent of patients and kept them from spreading for a median of about four months. The results were intriguing, especially since IL-21 is a genetically engineered protein drug made to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer cells, a mechanism of action unlike any other marketed drug for melanoma.

But the data was from too small a study, and the findings were still too preliminary, to really compare with a big study of more than 670 patients like the one presented by Bristol-Myers.

Bristol-Myers, of course, is interested in ZymoGenetics for a lot more than just its potential to treat melanoma. Bristol made big corporate news earlier this month when announced its intention to acquire ZymoGenetics for $9.75 a share, or about $885 million. The prime asset in that deal, Bristol has said, is a different compound ZymoGenetics has in the pipeline for treating hepatitis C, a chronic liver infection. Bristol has said it wants to retain ZymoGenetics’ sole marketed product, recombinant thrombin (Recothrom) for treating surgical bleeding, and some of its pipeline. Bristol said in its takeover announcement that it wants IL-21 for melanoma, so if it finalizes the ZymoGenetics takeover in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see what Bristol does next with the drug.

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