Bristol Myers Squibb hematology chief talks COVID-19 challenges, opportunities in blood cancer therapies

Bristol Myers Squibb’s hematology group began the year integrating acquired therapies from Celgene and prepping new therapies for debut, strategizing launches and looking at ways to bolster the portfolio beyond its stronghold in multiple myeloma.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Like many other drugmakers, BMS had to adjust. In its case, three drug launches—along with internal and external meetings, and physician and patient communications built around them—all had to go virtual.

So the company pivoted quickly to digital, and in the end, may have even picked up a tailwind, Nadim Ahmed, executive vice president and president of hematology at BMS, said.

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For example, Reblozyl, with two indications—for patients with beta-thalassemia and to treat anemia in patients with myelodysplastic syndromes—had its in-person launch plans kiboshed. However, the shutdowns actually added a new ability to promote the Rebloyzl benefit of decreased blood transfusions at a time many patients were attempting to avoid in-office visits. Reblozyl trial data showed it can help patients achieve transfusion independence.

“On one hand, we would have preferred a live launch, but on the other hand it was addressing a real unmet need caused by COVID-19,” Ahmed said.

More recently, BMS got an FDA nod for Onureg, an oral med to treat acute myeloid leukemia patients who are in remission after initial chemotherapy but aren't eligible for curative therapy. Again, the pandemic hampered launch plans, but it also helped make the case for the benefit of an oral medicine that can be taken at home.

The third BMS blood cancer drug impacted by COVID-19, JAK inhibitor Inrebic as a first-line or follow-up treatment for myelofibrosis, actually launched before the pandemic. It’s also an oral med, and the first new treatment in nearly a decade approved to treat the disease, Ahmed said.

“I do think, especially in some specialty businesses where it’s very high science, there will be still be a need for live interaction and live educational offerings,” he said. “But what COVID has taught us is we can probably go deeper and further with digital offerings. It really got us to think about stretching that muscle.”

Not all the changes were digital. BMS adapted labs to get research scientists safely back in person to continue the necessary collaborations across multiple disciplines including genomics, pathology and bioinformatics. The same went for manufacturing and getting plants back up safely with social distancing and other safety measures in place.

Another addition was a new patient assistance program to provide free BMS drugs for people who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

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The hematology group plans to take the pandemic and digital lessons forward as it continues to gain approvals and plan launches. Already on the horizon, filed with FDA and pending approval, are CAR-T therapies liso-cel and ide-cel.

Meanwhile, the current focus on newer leukemia and AML drug launches doesn't mean BMS is putting multiple myeloma on the backburner. Now that the pharma has treatment offerings that span early diagnosis to later stage multiple myeloma, Ahmed and his group are working on beyond-the-pill resources that can connect and carry patients through every stage.

The tools are in the concept stage, but the focus is on how to leverage that robust part of BMS’ hematology portfolio that could cross therapies to benefit physicians and patients.