After phase 3 bust, Lilly cans pancreatic cancer program for Armo buyout drug

Eli Lilly is canning the lead program for the crown jewel of its $1.6 billion Armo Biosciences buyout after the drug put up a poor showing in pancreatic cancer. The Big Pharma said it was ending the phase 3 study of pegilodecakin in its third-quarter earnings presentation. 

When Lilly got its hands on pegilodecakin, a PEGylated form of the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10, Armo had moved it into the clinic for melanoma as well as pancreatic, lung and kidney cancers and other solid tumors. 

The drug didn’t start out at Armo, though—Merck picked it up years before when it swallowed up Schering-Plough, but subsequently lost interest and shelved it. Two Merck Research Labs scientists who had worked on pegilodecakin still believed in it and reached out to biotech entrepreneur Peter Van Vlasselaer, who built Armo around it. 

Lilly announced on Wednesday last week that the drug missed its primary endpoint in the phase 3 Sequoia trial, which combined pegilodecakin with a chemo cocktail and tested it against the cocktail, known as FOLFOX, alone. The combo failed to extend the lives of patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer whose disease had worsened during or following treatment with first-line Gemzar (gemcitabine). 

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Pancreatic cancer remains one of the deadliest and most difficult cancers to treat, with five-year survival rates in the single digits. But Lilly is hopeful about pegilodecakin’s utility in other cancer types.

“Pancreatic cancer has proven to be one of the most difficult tumor types to treat and there have been very few recent treatment advancements in the later-line metastatic setting. We are grateful to the patients, investigators and researchers who participated in the study,” said Maura Dickler, M.D., vice president of late-phase development at Lilly Oncology, last week. 

“While we are disappointed by the outcome of the Sequoia study, we look forward to the upcoming results in lung cancer, learning from those results and increasing our understanding of pegilodecakin’s novel mechanism of action in cancer immunotherapy,” Dickler said. 

The demise of the pancreatic cancer program comes amid an otherwise rosy quarter for Lilly—“Don't Hold Your Nose 'Cause LLY Smells Like A Rose This Morning,” wrote Cantor Fitzgerald analysts, citing an uptick in revenues that was driven by volume, or selling more drugs, rather than by raising prices.