After COVID decline, Pfizer builds out cancer pipeline and leans into ADCs

After investing heavily in COVID-19 over the last few years, Pfizer is pivoting to zoom in on cancer, with a laser focus on next-gen antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs), small molecules and bispecific antibodies.

The shift in strategy follows last year’s acquisition of Seagen, a biotech developing ADCs designed to treat cancer. The $43 billion deal doubled Pfizer’s oncology pipeline to 60 programs.

Now, during an innovation day Thursday, the Big Pharma is touting a pipeline it says holds the potential for at least eight blockbuster medicines by 2030, though a company spokesperson said Pfizer was not disclosing which drugs the company believes offer this potential.

The company’s oncology unit—established in 2014—is led by Chief Oncology Officer and Executive Vice President Chris Boshoff, M.D., Ph.D., who stepped into the role last summer after serving as chief oncology R&D officer. After the Seagen acquisition closed in December, Pfizer’s team has welcomed on two of the company’s former leaders: Megan O'Meara, M.D., who has stepped on as senior vice president and head of early development for oncology; and Roger Dansey, M.D., who is taking on the role of chief development officer of oncology.

With the motto “Let’s outdo cancer,” Pfizer’s new emphasis is in four main types of cancer: breast cancer, including three main hormonal subtypes; genitourinary cancer, such as prostate and urothelial cancers; hematology-oncology, including multiple myeloma and lymphomas; and thoracic cancers, which includes lung and head and neck cancers. The pharma’s previous oncology focus areas were genitourinary, breast, hematology and precision medicine, a company spokesperson confirmed.

The Big Pharma is exploring the four core areas using three modalities: small molecules, ADCs and bispecific antibodies, including other immuno-oncology biologics. The company’s next-gen ADC platform combines Pfizer's protein engineering and antibody design capabilities with Seagen’s ADC tech to take aim at novel targets and improved, differentiated payloads, chief scientific officer for oncology R&D, Jeff Settleman, Ph.D., said during the event.

“We believe we're now uniquely positioned to bring forward the most extensive ADC portfolio in the industry, which includes a variety of novel and differentiated programs,” Settleman said.

In total, the company has 12 ADCs in its pipeline that fall into one of four categories: vedotin ADCs; ADCs employing TOPO1 inhibitor payloads; next-gen auristatin ADCs with potentially improved tolerability; and ADCs with novel payload mechanisms of action.  

Six of the pipeline ADCs are in the early-clinical or preclinical stage,  according to Settleman. Of the 11 total approved ADCs in the U.S., five are from Pfizer and two are Seagen tech.   

Zooming out from ADCs, Pfizer touted seven upcoming phase 3 readouts, including results for Arvinas-partnered vepdegestrant, an orally bioavailable protein degrader being studied in second-line hormone receptor positive (HR+) metastatic breast cancer that snagged fast-track status from the FDA earlier this month.

By the end of 2023, the Big Pharma was funneling 40% of its R&D investments into investigational cancer therapies, according to Thursday's presentation. Settlemen said the majority of future oncology research activities will take place across two R&D sites—one is a newly acquired Seagen site in Bothell, Washington, and the other is a state-of-the-art facility in La Jolla, California.  

Outside of oncology, Pfizer remains focused on vaccines, metabolic and inflammatory indications, CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., said at the end of the four-and-a-half-hour event. 

The pharma has conducted a good amount of soul searching within the last year, as demand for the company’s COVID-19 vaccine Comirnaty and antiviral Paxlovid plummeted. The steep decline in COVID products triggered a cost-cutting campaign that has left hundreds of jobs in its wake.

Pfizer’s stock slipped slightly over the course of the day, starting at $27.13 per share at market open and dropping to $26.56 at market close.