Inovio axes staffers, cancer program to 'sharpen focus,' save cash

Cancer in newspaper clipping
Inovio Pharmaceuticals will stop work on a bladder cancer program after tough market competition. (PDPics/Pixabay)

A few months after AstraZeneca’s MedImmune unit walked away from some of its R&D work with the biotech, Inovio Pharmaceuticals is cutting 28% of its workforce and swinging the ax to a cancer program.

Back in May, and coming from a brief Securities and Exchange Commission update, the biotech said: “Inovio Pharmaceuticals has received notification from MedImmune, a subsidiary of AstraZeneca, that AstraZeneca intends to discontinue activities with respect to the research collaboration programs, other than MEDI0457, that are the subject of the parties’ license and collaboration agreement dated August 7, 2015. Under that agreement, in addition to MEDI0457, AstraZeneca had rights to co-develop up to two new DNA-based cancer vaccine product candidates.”

This was clearly a setback for the company, but it vowed to go on. Now, however, after the dust has settled on this step back from AZ’s biologics unit, Inovio said that it will be cutting 28% of its staffers and will also “cut selected early-stage R&D programs and discontinued further development of its Phase 1/2 study in advanced bladder cancer, while reducing its annual burn rate by 25%.”

The small-cap biotech was down 13% premarket on the news.

The cutting of INO-5401, which was being tested in advanced bladder cancer, comes “because of the recognition that several new therapeutic alternatives have been approved, or are likely to be approved, for study patients since the trial's design and inception, and because of the high expense of the trial.”

This presumably includes the new set of checkpoint inhibitors: Bladder cancer is a crowded area where five of six available members of the PD-1/PD-L1 cohort bear approvals. MEDI0457 remains unaffected by the cutbacks.

Inovio will continue work with the therapy in certain forms of aggressive brain tumors, for which there are far fewer treatment options.

The company says the changes come from its desire to “sharpen its focus” on human papillomavirus (HPV) cancers, which includes commercializing its (highly troubled) lead asset VGX-3100, a DNA-based immunotherapy to treat cervical dysplasia caused by HPV. It is currently in late-stage development.

It adds that it will also be “re-deploying resources to rapidly advance INO-3107 (previously called INO-3106) to treat RRP (recurrent respiratory papillomatosis).”

RRP is a rare, orphan disease caused by HPV 6 and 11 infection. Inovio said it plans to kick-start the next clinical trial of INO-3107 “within 12 months”.

Dr. J. Joseph Kim, Inovio's president and CEO, said: "From a position of strength with a healthy balance sheet and a 200-person team, Inovio sharpened its focus to create a more efficient organization with greater financial flexibility and a longer runway.

“With a refined strategy, Inovio will continue to advance our later-stage HPV programs while devoting more resources to develop fast-to-market product candidates such as GBM, RRP and dBTEs. We continue to expect near-term value drivers in the second half of this year that include interim data from Phase 2 studies targeting HPV-related vulvar and anal dysplasia and from our Phase 2 GBM study. We also anticipate the potential for significant new partnerships as our technology continues to attract attention from U.S. and international markets.”