Bristol-Myers' Opdivo front and center in yet another cancer-fighting partnership, this time with Janssen

In its second Opdivo tie-up in as many days, Bristol-Myers Squibb has teamed up with Johnson & Johnson to test its drug in yet another variety of lung cancer cocktail. 

Bristol-Myers and J&J’s Janssen Biotech unit will put Opdivo through its paces in non-small cell lung cancer, alongside an experimental immunotherapy now dubbed JNJ-64041757. That Phase I drug is an antigen-presentation therapy based on attenuated Listeria monocytogenes virus.

The deal is part of an ongoing space race in immuno-oncology, as drugmakers anticipate a new era of cancer-fighting combination regimens and strike partnership deals in hopes of hitting upon the most effective cocktails.

Bristol-Myers and Merck & Co., currently the two leaders in immuno-oncology with the first two marketed PD-1 therapies, have each inked a slate of combination therapy deals with Big Pharma and smaller biotechs alike. Roche, which recently nabbed FDA approval for its entry, Tecentriq, has its own range of collaborations, too.

Combination immunotherapies promise better results with far fewer side effects than older treatments. They also will come at a big cost. Opdivo and Merck's Keytruda each carry list prices of about $150,000 per year, which means two- and three-drug combination regimens could come to twice that--or more. Bristol-Myers priced its Opdivo and Yervoy combo, recently approved in melanoma, at $256,000 per year. Priced separately two drugs together would cost more than $300,000 the company says.  

Bristol-Myers teamed up Monday with AbbVie to trial Opdivo and its sister immunotherapy Yervoy with AbbVie’s closely watched Rova-T therapy. Both that deal and the new Janssen collaboration involve Phase II trials that potentially could lead to breakthrough therapy applications for quick FDA approval.

The Janssen candidate relies on live attenuated double-deleted (LADD) strains of listeria. The strains are engineered to spur a patient’s immune system to attack lung cancer tumors. It’s currently in Phase I at Janssen.

Bristol-Myers has been ginning up these combo drug deals in an effort to stay ahead in the immuno-therapy field, where it's competing head-to-head with Merck & Co.’s Keytruda in melanoma and lung cancer. Then there’s Roche’s Tecentriq (atezolizumab), which recently won an FDA nod to treat bladder cancer--an indication Opdivo also hopes to snare. Pipeline meds from Pfizer and AstraZeneca will also be looking to snag a piece of the PD-1/PD-L1 market.

Big Pharma development executives figure that partnerships in immunotherapy will yield the most effective and safest drug cocktails, given that individual drugmakers are unlikely to be experts in every hot research field. At a conference in April, AbbVie’s Niels Emmerich argued that the best drug combos are likely to come out of clinical collaborations. “[I]n the end, it comes down to what are the most promising combinations, where 1 plus 1 is significantly greater than 2,” Emmerich said at the time.

- see the Bristol-Myers release

Special Report: The top 20 drugs in 2020--worldwide sales - Opdivo

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