CRUK to use AstraZeneca’s DNA Damage Response med in head and neck cancer test

Birmingham, England Magistrates' Court
The trials will be undertaken in Birmingham, England.

AstraZeneca is allowing U.K. scientists access to an early-stage pipeline med in the hope it can help patients with head and neck cancer.

The ex-Merck drug is the WEE1 protein inhibitor AZD1775, which proved particularly lethal to genes with a SETD2 mutation, something that researchers see as a potential Achilles’ heel often found in kidney cancer and childhood brain tumors.

AstraZeneca landed rights to the drug back in 2013, when incoming Merck R&D chief Roger Perlmutter opted to spin it out while focusing an immense effort around the development of its PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda (pembrolizumab). Since then, AstraZeneca has made it available to academic investigators, such as Oxford University, through the pharma’s open innovation program.

Now, AZ is teaming up with the so-called Combinations Alliance, a joint initiative between Cancer Research U.K. and the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres (ECMC) Network, to test AZD1775 in head and neck cancer.

AZ has struggled in this treatment in this setting, announcing a year ago that it was dropping plans to gain an early regulatory review for its checkpoint inhibitor Imfinzi (durvalumab) in head and neck cancers.

The ECMC test of AZD1775 will treat two groups of up to 21 patients at the University of Birmingham in England. The first group will receive AZD1775 with chemo before surgery, with the second set to get AZD1775 in addition to chemo and radiotherapy after surgery.

Survival rates using traditional methods are poor, and the hope is that this could help stop the disease coming back after treatment.

Professor Hisham Mehanna, chief investigator of the trial based at the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Studies at the University of Birmingham, said: “Many patients diagnosed with aggressive types of head and neck cancer are at a high risk of relapse after surgery, so we urgently need to find new ways to treat the disease and reduce the risk of it returning.

“We hope that combining this drug with chemotherapy will mean that treatment is more effective helping more people survive, and that those cured will have a better quality of life after treatment.”

In the U.K., stats by CRUK show that rates of these cancers have spiked in recent years, related to high use of alcohol, smoking and, it’s believed, HPV-related infections, with men far more likely to have the condition than women.

Anthony Johnson, VP Early Clinical Development, Innovative Medicines and Early Development Biotech Unit at AstraZeneca, added: “We are excited about this new clinical trial evaluating AZD1775 in combination with chemotherapy and radiation in head and neck cancer patients. There is a strong scientific rationale for running this trial and we hope that this will bring clinical benefit to patients.”

Current ongoing trials of AZD1775 include monotherapy and combination therapy with certain DNA damaging agents in solid tumors, including its own PARP Lynparza (olaparib).