Interview – Boehringer plays catch-up in immuno-oncology

Boehringer Ingelheim executives are quick to admit that their company has not been at the forefront of the immuno-oncology revolution. But the German group hopes not to be too late to make a mark in this field, with a focus on combinations – specifically, with cancer vaccines.

Its strategy depends on developing its own anti-PD-1 antibody, BI 754091, which is well behind the competition in phase I. But Michel Pairet, head of Boehringer’s innovation unit, believes that it is important for the company to have an in-house checkpoint inhibitor. “If different companies bring different components then you will have an interesting discussion about the pricing and the contribution of each component to the overall solution,” he told EP Vantage this week at the company’s annual financial press conference.

“We fully realise we’re a late entrant in the field of immune checkpoint inhibitors. It’s not with our PD-1 inhibitor that we’ll make the difference,” Mr Pairet admitted. Instead, he reckons the combination approach could give Boehringer an edge by expanding the pool of treatable patients to include those with poorly immunogenic tumours, which are not addressed by current therapies.

The company plans to pair BI 754091 with various cancer vaccine approaches, including those using peptides, RNA and vectors. Mr Pairet would not say what cancers the group was looking at, or at what stage its projects were, apart from to disclose that “the most advanced are in clinical development”.

The company’s interest in RNA vaccines is already public via a 2014 deal with Curevac that saw Boehringer gain full rights to CV9202, which is in phase I in non-small cell lung cancer (CureVac emerges with €35m cancer vaccine endorsement, September 18, 2014). Since then, things have gone quiet, but Mr Pairet said the project was still in play.

Boehringer has a presence in the other types of cancer vaccines, he added, both via in-house development and partnerships. These are not yet in the clinic, though he declined to give more details.

The group is also looking at combinations of checkpoint inhibitors with oncolytic viruses, and in this arena it signed an agreement with Viratherapeutics last year. The company has a lead asset that should go into the clinic in 2018 (Interview – Boehringer beats a brave route with oncolytic virus deal, October 5, 2016). 

Lagging

This emphasises a potential problem for Boehringer: all of these projects are at an early stage and, with many others looking at combinations, there is a risk that it could fall behind here too. But Mr Pairet insisted: “For the combination, it’s not too late.”

There is no denying, however, that the immuno-oncology field is already moving on, and a growing interest in IO-IO drug combinations could see the field change markedly by the time a Boehringer drug-vaccine combo hits the market. The pairing of PD-1 and IDO inhibitors, in particular, has come under the spotlight recently.

Again, though, Boehringer has plans. It is looking at other immuno-oncology approaches, and has an anti-Lag3 MAb, BI 754111, in preclinical trials. In addition, it has more assets in earlier-stage development, Mr Pairet said, without revealing their mechanisms of action.

He also highlighted a Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund portfolio company, Imcheck, “which is focused on the next wave of immune checkpoint inhibitors”. The private company is looking at a group of unnamed proprietary targets.

With details so scant it is hard to evaluate Boehringer’s chances of breaking into the immuno-oncology sector. But one thing is certain: it has a lot of catching up to do.

To contact the writer of this story email Madeleine Armstrong in London at madeleinea@epvantage.com or follow @ByMadeleineA on Twitter

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