Juno strikes 3 deals to advance multiple myeloma combo treatment

Juno ditched its lead CAR-T program in March because of patient deaths. It has since refocused on a candidate for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Juno Therapeutics, which dumped its lead CAR-T program in March, has inked itself a potential lifeline: a trio of license agreements that will help it develop a combo treatment for multiple myeloma.

The deals, signed with Eli Lilly, OncoTracker and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, aim to boost the development of a multiple myeloma therapy combining BCMA-directed CAR-T cells in combination with gamma secretase inhibitors (GSIs).

The enzyme gamma secretase cleaves a group of transmembrane proteins, including BCMA, or B-cell maturation antigen. Research has shown that GSIs can boost the expression of BCMA on tumor cells, especially in multiple myeloma, the company said. Juno is betting that adding GSIs to a BCMA-targeting CAR-T therapy will improve its potency.

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Through its agreement with Lilly, Juno will gain a license to Lilly’s GSI, LY3039478. The deals with Fred Hutch and OncoTracker will give Juno exclusive rights to intellectual property in the sphere of combinations of GSIs and BCMA-directed engineered T cells.

“These licenses open up an important approach to improve the activity and outcomes for CAR T cells targeted at BCMA,” said Sunil Agarwal, M.D., Juno’s president of research and development, in the statement. “We plan to begin clinical trials in 2018 combining a gamma secretase inhibitor with our BCMA CAR T product candidates.”

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Juno is currently recruiting for a phase 1 trial investigating the use of its BCMA-directed CAR-T cells alongside chemotherapy drug lenalidomide (Revlimid).

The company halted the development of its lead therapy in March, after three patients died in the phase 2 trial investigating the candidate, JCAR015, in adult relapsed or refractory B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

It then shifted its focus to another treatment, this one for relapsed or refractory aggressive B cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In June, the biotech reported positive results from a phase 1 dose-finding study of the candidate, JCAR017.

Juno is playing catch-up with Novartis and Kite Pharma—recently acquired by Gilead—both of which scored the FDA's OK for their CAR-T therapies this year.