BIO 2012: Immunotherapies make a comeback at Big Pharma

BIO 2012 International Convention Slideshow
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The annual BIO meeting is typically short on news. But it's a great place to pick up on the latest trends in drug development. With that in mind, I wanted to flag a few interesting remarks gleaned from last week's confab in Boston.

It's now clear that some prominent Big Pharma companies have gained a healthy appetite for immunotherapies. Developers have blown hot and cold on immunotherapies in recent years. At first viewed as a hot new field, they often failed to measure up as solo therapies for cancer. But now the sparkle is back in the eyes of the licensing groups.

"It reminds me of monoclonal antibodies," says Joe McCracken, the global head of business development at Roche ($RHHBY). Antibodies, he explains, went through the classic ups and downs usually associated with a long and winding development path for a new technology. Like a lot of new therapeutic arenas, interest peaked early, then slumped and eventually swelled back up. And immunotherapies are going through the same metamorphosis.

Immunotherapies--for autoimmune diseases as well as oncology--are now one of the two top fields of interest for McCracken, who also sees a bright future in matching immunotherapies to particular patient populations--one of the key themes at the drug giant. The other field in which McCracken is looking to strike deals is neurodevelopmental disorders, exemplified by the days-old pact that he struck with Seaside Therapeutics for fragile X syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, Nigel Sheail, a Roche vet who was put in charge of external relationships at Bayer late last year, also highlighted the company's interest in immunotherapies. Bayer already has antibody-drug conjugates in the early-stage pipeline (and doesn't everyone these days?) as it pursues an ambitious strategy to build on its Nexavar franchise with the next-gen regorafenib and a new slate of cancer drugs.

For Sheail, whose mandate includes ophthalmology (back of the eye, in particular), women's health and cardiovascular therapies, among others, immunotherapies are particularly appealing because they offer a shot at working well in combination with other cancer drugs. By boosting the immune system, developers have the perfect synergistic strategy for oncology. And at an early stage of the disease, "it does raise the possibility of a cure."

Years ago I heard the famous business guru Peter Drucker regale an audience in Dallas with his observation that new technologies in the U.S. always go through a classic decade-long transition. At first the new technology is greeted overenthusiastically, with people betting big on an overnight revolution. Most lose everything and then 10 years or so later the new tech finally gains a dominant position in the market.

The late, great Drucker would have loved to analyze the biotech business. 

FierceBiotech virtually relocated the whole team to Boston this year, where we had a great turnout for our executive breakfast exploring how virtual drug development strategies are influencing everyone in the industry, big and small. We also collected a slideshow of photographs of the people attending BIO this year. We added a few of their thoughts. I hope you can take the time to check it out. -- John Carroll, Editor-in-Chief. Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

See the BIO 2012 slideshow >>