Rival drug firms team up to test new approach to cancer treatment
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SAN FRANCISCO — Rival biotech and pharma heavyweights are teaming up to accelerate testing of a hot new field of cancer treatment — including trying dozens of new drugs in various combinations.

The new National Immunotherapy Coalition brings together big names such as Amgen, Celgene, and Merck KGaA, among others. The coalition will be led by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a biotech billionaire who runs a network of companies working on cancer treatments and personalized medicine.

The coalition’s ambitions don’t surprise outsiders, who are used to Soon-Shiong’s brash personality and bold promises.

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“He never says things that are small. Whenever he makes proclamations, they’re usually ginormous,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute.

But he and other outside analysts said it wasn’t at all clear that the coalition would be able to break new ground in the treatment of cancer.

The initiative, dubbed “Cancer MoonShot 2020,” will focus on the hottest field of oncology — harnessing the immune system to fight malignancies. Yet the coalition does not include some of the biggest players in immunotherapy, such as Juno Therapeutics, Kite Pharma, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

And while the coalition’s stated objective is to encourage rival companies to work together to test new combinations of drugs, such cooperation is already taking place.

Just five years ago, “this kind of cooperation was unheard of,” said Washington University School of Medicine’s Robert Schreiber, a pioneer in the field. In part, that was because many of the drugs used to fight cancer were so toxic, and combining them was risky.

But new therapies, particularly those that target the immune system, are far less toxic, so collaboration is increasingly common.

Companies “have realized that that old parochialism, where you stick only with your own drug, isn’t good for them and it isn’t good for patients,” said Schreiber, the co-founder of a startup working on cancer immunotherapy.

Merck, for instance, recently teamed up with GSK to test its melanoma immunotherapy, Ketytruda, in combination with another drug on patients with solid tumors that have resisted previous treatments.

Since collaboration is already taking place, some experts are skeptical the coalition will have much impact. “I’m interested to see what value it offers beyond publicity for them,” said Dr. John Heymach of MD Anderson Cancer Center.

But others say a coalition focused on immunotherapy can’t hurt.

“Putting smart people together is probably a good first step,” said Dr. John Halamka, chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

When immunotherapy drugs work, they work phenomenally. (Keytruda, for example, has helped former president Jimmy Carter battle advanced melanoma.) But they work in only about 10 percent to 30 percent of patients, depending on the kind of cancer, biologist Ira Mellman, vice president of research oncology at Genentech, told a cancer immunotherapy meeting in New York last year.

Immunotherapy is a broad term covering a range of approaches, some experimental and some already in clinical use.

One promising approach: a cancer vaccine, designed to incite the immune system to raise an army of T-cells to attack tumors.

The problem is, many tumors throw up a biological force field to keep the immune system at bay. That’s where another type of immunotherapy drug comes in: Known as checkpoint blockades, they work by lifting that force field and letting the T-cells attack.

Researchers are now looking at combining a vaccine with a checkpoint blockade to boost effectiveness. The coalition could further that work.

“Patrick Soon-Shiong is certainly capable of bringing issues to the attention of people in the right places, raising money, creating an immense amount of public awareness,” Halamka said.

Soon-Shiong, who will be leading the coalition, has been called the richest physician in the world; Forbes pegs his fortune at $12.5 billion. He’s known as a showman who likes to make bold claims. And he moves in powerful circles.

Last year, as Beau Biden was dying of cancer, Soon-Shiong met several times with Vice President Joe Biden, the New York Times has reported. The two met again last fall, and Soon-Shiong presented the vice president with an outline of an ambitious plan to find a cure for cancer, starting with full genome sequencing of 100,000 cancer patients and a huge data mining effort to find the keys to personalizing treatment.

Biden has publicly called for the nation to fund a “moonshot” to cure cancer.

But he’s still gathering information on how best to do that; just last week, his staff met with top cancer researchers from across the country. Biden is not involved in Soon-Shiong’s latest “moonshot” initiative, though they both use the same terminology. The Food and Drug Administration is not involved, either, and the National Cancer Institute will participate only to weigh in on clinical trial design.

Dylan Scott, Sheila Kaplan, and Andrew Joseph contributed to this report.

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