An experimental cancer immunotherapy developed by biotechnology company Jounce Therapeutics didn’t help shrink lung cancer tumors in a Phase 2 trial, prompting the company Tuesday to cancel plans to advance it into late-stage testing.
The drug, called vopratelimab, had been Jounce’s lead candidate since it received its second major round of investor funding seven years ago and was once the centerpiece of a lucrative partnership with Celgene. However, Jounce has reported multiple clinical setbacks for the drug over the last few years, including the lung cancer results disclosed Tuesday. Those findings have led executives to review whether it’s worth continuing to invest in the program.
Vopratelimab targets cell surface molecules called ICOS that help activate tumor-fighting T cells. The target is one of many in recent years that’s been seen by researchers and drugmakers as a way to boost the power of “checkpoint inhibitor” cancer immunotherapies like Merck & Co.’s Keytruda.
That search has led to more failures than successes, however. Once-promising drugs from Incyte, Nektar Therapeutics, Roche and others have fallen short in late-stage testing after showing promising signs in early trials.
Jounce is now the latest in line. In the study, Jounce tested vopratelimab with the company’s experimental checkpoint inhibitor, pimivalimab, in non-small cell lung cancer patients who had progressed after initial treatment. Jounce tested three different doses of the combination to pimivalimab treatment alone.
Jounce aimed to boost its chances of success in the study by enrolling patients who’d tested positive for a biomarker that made them more likely to respond to vopratelimab. Yet none of the combination regimens led to a statistically significant difference in the size of patients’ tumors when compared to pimivalimab alone, the study’s primary goal. The two-drug combination also didn’t appear to help patients achieve remission, either, although a greater percentage of those who received a lower dose were alive and hadn’t seen their disease progress.
The results “do not support moving into registration studies as had been our previous goal. We will re-evaluate [vopratelimab] in the context of our broader pipeline in the coming months,” Jounce CEO Richard Murray said in a written statement. Murray described the survival data as “intriguing,” however.
Jounce shares fell 18% in morning trading Tuesday, changing hands at about $3.50 apiece.
The setback follows GSK’s decision to stop work on its ICOS targeting drug, feladilimab, following a failure in head and neck cancers. Another project, called MEDI-570, was developed and then scrapped by AstraZeneca. The National Cancer Institute is testing MEDI-570 in a Phase 1 trial in different types of lymphoma.