ASCO: Takeda Oncology ready to stoke partnerships to fire up cancer-fighting pillar technologies

Takeda Oncology employees arrived on the scene at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting eager to be back in person and ready to talk potential partnerships that could bolster the Japanese pharma's three main “pillar” areas.

Takeda’s Teresa Bitetti, president of global oncology, and Chris Arendt, Ph.D., head of oncology, cell therapy and therapeutic area unit, research and development, sat down with Fierce Biotech on the sidelines of the meeting in Chicago. Both leaders were fired up to be back, emitting enthusiasm as they discussed the Takeda Pharmaceutical unit's developing pipeline, partnerships and the role biotech plays in it all.

But they also arrived at one of the cancer world's largest gatherings amid a difficult and prolonged bear market for biotech, which in April and May forced at least 22 biotechs to lay off staff. 

Ultimately, biotechs are where a lot of innovation comes from, Bitetti said. She believes it's the usual marketplace volatility that will clear up, but this could provide some opportunities for companies—potentially like Takeda—that are looking for deals. 

“But to me, it's a good time, quite frankly, if you're looking, because the affordability is there,” Bitetti said—an affordability the leader doesn’t think will last long.

Many Big Pharma execs have lamented high valuations that have kept potential target companies out of reach, but that seems to be changing, as in the past month a few high-profile deals have been struck by heavyweights Bristol Myers Squibb, GSK and Pfizer

Takeda’s pipeline, which has benefited from a clutch of recent partnerships and investments, is just starting to flex, according to Arendt. Bitetti believes the company is going to start seeing real inflection points next year. Back in 2017, Takeda joined the CAR-T pack by linking up with biotech startup Noile-Immune. The partners are working on two therapies, TAK-102 and TAK-103, which are redirected immunity therapies for solid tumors currently in phase 1 testing. 

In another oncology deal from 2019, Takeda poured nearly $1 billion in upfront fees and biobucks into Turnstone Biologics for an armored oncolytic virus candidate now called TAK-605. Also being studied for solid tumors, the therapy is in a phase 1/2 trial. 

The company is always actively scanning the space for partners centered around one of the three pillars—partnerships that will help Takeda build a sustainable engine to deliver new medicines to patients in need, Arendt said. As of now, two Takeda pillars stand ablaze, with one just waiting to be lit.

Takeda Oncology boasts approved drugs such as Adcetris for Hodgkin lymphoma and Alunbrig for ALK-positive disease. Over the past two years, Takeda has worked to enter new oncology frontiers.

The first pillar, which is the furthest along, is founded on the biology of innate immunity. Arendt likened the science to the commander of the immune army: It senses what's wrong, gathers the right responders and ultimately reshapes tumor microenvironments. Innate immunity carries the ammunition to crank up the heat, turning a “cold tumor” to one that’s “hot,” or inflamed with immune response.

A lot of data presented by Takeda at this year’s ASCO were derived from this concept, including a presentation on the molecule modakafusp alfa (TAK-573), which tries to take advantage of a lever on the cold-to-hot switch. Takeda researchers have found that the molecule can inhibit tumor growth in multiple myeloma patients and think it could be applied to other tumors as well. Two phase 1/2 trials are ongoing in multiple myeloma and also solid tumors. 

Another ASCO presentation shed light on subasumstat (TAK-981), a type of small-molecule inhibitor that no other company has in the clinic yet. To boil the science down to a basic level, subasumstat can also dial tumors up to a hotter profile. Takeda is testing it in phase 1/2 trials for solid tumors, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma. 

To usher new mechanisms into the clinic faster, Takeda partnered with biotech Presage Biosciences in 2020. The research collaboration allowed the biopharma to conduct phase 0 clinical studies that produced instant images of the activity—or lack of activity—within a tumor that has been combined with different agents.

“It's a real accelerator,” Bitetti said of the Presage partnership and images. “We could never do that before.”

The second pillar Takeda is building out is cell therapy, which sits in a much earlier stage of the pipeline. Fueled largely by Takeda’s R&D engine and partnerships, the biopharma is currently finding success with the build-to-buy model, where it incubates platform technologies and then later can opt to acquire the tech. In the last year and a half alone, Takeda has signed three built-to-buy deals, including the January acquisition of Adaptate Biotherapeutics.

And the third pillar? It's unknown. Make no mistake—Takeda isn’t idle. Instead, it's gathering kindling, exploring potential areas of focus and plotting out next moves.