ASCO: Big Four immuno-oncology players wager $1.3B on next-gen cancer drugs

Courtesy of Daniel Schwen

CHICAGO--When the curtain goes up at ASCO here tomorrow, you can bet that one subject will dominate the entire conference: immuno-oncology. But the number of prominent players on the immunopalooza stage this year is likely to grow as analysts fix on the swelling lineup of studies that are attracting global attention from cancer patients and physicians.

In the traditional lead-up to ASCO, Bloomberg today assembled a comprehensive look at the pipeline for immunotherapies, and it should leave no doubt that Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) is gambling the lion's share of the estimated $1.3 billion committed to fund 78 currently known trials which will enroll 19,000 cancer patients.

Bristol-Myers, Naomi Kresge and Robert Langreth report, is devoting an estimated $649 million to its immuno-oncology work, which is primarily devoted to getting nivolumab through the clinic and into the market. Merck ($MRK), which is furiously at work on MK-3475 as many of the rest of its projects struggle, at one point recently described its immuno-oncology program as a pipeline unto itself. But the pharma giant is actually a distant second at this stage of the race, at least in terms of spending, with an estimated commitment of $327 million. Then Roche ($RHHBY) and AstraZeneca ($AZN) bring up the rear, with programs costing an estimated $189 million and $145 million, respectively.

It was AstraZeneca's budding prospects with its immuno-oncology program for the PD-L1 therapy MEDI4736 that helped it avoid the clutches of Pfizer ($PFE), first by demonstrating that its pipeline had real potential and then by figuring in on Pascal Soriot's claim that a Pfizer takeover would disrupt their R&D efforts, potentially leaving patients to die.

Roche hasn't enjoyed as much attention for its PD-L1 program for MPDL3280A, but new data from a small study on bladder cancer looked promising and its Genentech unit is looking to make a splash in Chicago.

Rarely a week goes by without a few new immuno-oncology research deals to report, as even a casual reader of FierceBiotech will likely note. The reason is simple: Investigators believe they have figured out a way to dismantle the mechanism used by cancer cells to stay hidden from the immune system. It's a broadly applicable approach which is likely to work in combination with a number of therapies. And after Citigroup last year put a $35 billion figure on the market potential for these drugs, the oft-cited megablockbuster number helps explain why these companies are so interested in being among the first to the market.

"I have never seen this much enthusiasm collectively for a class of drugs before," Asthika Goonewardene, a London-based analyst at Bloomberg Industries, tells the reporters. "This is essentially what we call a land grab. There's opportunity, and everybody is going out to find what that opportunity is."

The gold rush is being driven by projections that these drugs can come with a low six-figure price tag. But after Sovaldi helped spur a revolt among payers astonished by the price tag, getting a megablockbuster payback on these programs could be easier said than done.

Cancer vaccines were once the darlings of the R&D field for immunotherapies, but as Emily Mullin reports in FierceVaccines, a string of failures has seriously dimmed the prospects for the one-time leaders in the field. Still, some new biotechs are coming along. And as I reported in a separate story today, big players like J&J are looking to find some new ways to better apply some old, and failed, technologies.

- here's the full story from Bloomberg