Novartis extends immuno-oncology investment

Novartis has added another immuno-oncology deal to its R&D efforts, a further sign of the area’s central importance to the sector.

A new collaboration and licensing agreement with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Surface Oncology gives Novartis access to four pre-clinical programmes against ‘next generation’ targets. These take aim at regulatory T cell populations, inhibitory cytokines, and immunosuppressive metabolites in the tumour microenvironment.

The Swiss pharma giant is doubling its efforts in the field, having seen rivals Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb take the lead with their PD-1 chheckpoint inhibiotors Keytruda and Opdivo.

Novartis is however well placed in the CAR-T field, where its candidate CTL-019 is expected to first to file in 2017.

These programmes will be explored as monotherapies and in combination with other complementary therapies in Novartis’ immuno-oncology and targeted therapy portfolios.

It had been 12 months since Novartis launched a new immuno-oncology research team led by cancer vaccine pioneer Glenn Dranoff. The firm has since then rapidly built a broad portfolio of drugs in clinical and pre-clinical programmes, with a variety of novel drug mechanisms.

Novartis now has novel checkpoint inhibitors, chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CART) technology, myeloid cell targeting agents, the T cell stimulating factor IL-15, STING agonists that enhance immune recognition of cancers, and adenosine receptor antagonists and TGF-beta blocking antibodies that overcome immunosuppression in the tumour microenvironment.

Seven of these candidates are already in clinical trials and five more are expected to enter the clinic individually and as combinations by the end of 2016. On top of CTL-019, Novartis has a myeloid cell targeting programme (MCS110), an anti-TIM-3 programme (MGB453), IL-15-agonist (NIZ985) checkpoint inhibitors targeting PD-1 (PDR001) and LAG-3 (LAG525), and a small molecule adenosine receptor antagonist (NIR178) in phase 1 clinical trials.

The STING agonist (MIW815), a GITR agonist, and an anti-TGF-beta antibody are also progressing toward first-in-human clinical trials.

Novartis will be presenting this week at the JP Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco, where immunotherapy will again be top of the bill.

The sector is likely to see such deal making in immuno-oncology to continue at the same blistering pace seen in 2015.

Meanwhile Novartis’ rival Roche looks set to file its PD-L1 drug atezolizumab in advanced bladder cancer shortly after reporting additional positive results in a phase 2 trials.

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