Drug Companies to Try a Unified Front Against Cancer

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

From: nytimes.com

Some leading pharmaceutical companies are joining forces in an effort to speed the testing of new types of cancer drugs that harness the body’s immune system to battle tumors.

The cooperative effort, announced on Monday, will include Amgen, Celgene and some smaller companies. The effort, known as the National Immunotherapy Coalition, will try to rapidly test various combinations of such drugs.

Perhaps the most exciting development in oncology now is the sudden success, after decades of failure, of efforts to unleash the immune system to control cancer. Three drugs that have been approved in the last few years — Keytruda from Merck and Opdivo and Yervoy from Bristol-Myers Squibb — have produced significant and long-lasting improvements in some patients.

But many other patients do not benefit at all from the drugs. Researchers believe that combinations of two or more drugs that engage different parts of the immune system might be effective for more patients than a single drug.

The drugs from Merck and Bristol-Myers are “looking at only one tiny aspect,” said Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire pharmaceutical entrepreneur who is the driving force behind the new coalition. “What we wanted to do is capture all these different molecules in the immunotherapy system.”

Merck and Bristol-Myers are already testing their drugs in combinations with dozens of other drugs, many from other companies. Those companies and two others considered leaders in this field, Roche and AstraZeneca, are not in the new coalition.

But there are a dizzying number of possible combinations and arranging such trials one by one can be time-consuming. The coalition said it would have access to 60 drugs and would seek to enroll 20,000 patients by 2020. It will run early-stage trials of various combinations of drugs for up to 20 types of cancer, including breast, lung and prostate.

Some other companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Merck of Germany, have been considering joining the coalition but have not done so yet.

Academic medical centers and community oncologists will be involved.

Dr. Soon-Shiong, who is based in Los Angeles and is a part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, is best known for developing the cancer drug Abraxane. He sold the company that owned that drug to Celgene for $2.9 billion in 2010. Forbes estimates his wealth at $12.4 billion, making him the richest American pharmaceutical executive.

He is now involved in various companies and projects aimed at conquering cancer, including one called NantWorks. Some critics, however, have accused him of making exaggerated claims.

The coalition is the basis for what Dr. Soon-Shiong calls Cancer MoonShot 2020. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose son Beau died of cancer last year, has also talked about devoting the rest of his term in office and his years after that to a “moonshot” against cancer. Mr. Biden has met with Dr. Soon-Shiong, but has not decided what his program would entail.

The announcement of the coalition came on the first day of the huge J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, when numerous companies make announcements.