Nektar Taps New Head of Oncology Following Data Boost for NKTR-214 at SITC

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It has been a busy month for San Francisco-based Nektar Therapeutics. It started with a partnership to pair its lead drug candidate with one developed by pharma giant Pfizer. On Wednesday, the company named a Genentech veteran to helm its oncology programs.

Nektar Therapeutics tapped Wei Lin as senior vice president of clinical development and head of oncology. Lin will lead the development strategy of Nektar’s immuno-oncology programs, including lead asset NKTR-214, a CD122-biased agonist. It’s that drug candidate that the company has paired with Pfizer’s anti-PD-L1 antibody avelumab and talazoparib, a poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) inhibitor.

Nektar has also paired NKTR-214 with Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo as a frontline treatment for melanoma patients. NKTR-214 is designed to expand specific cancer-fighting CD8+ effector T-cells and natural killer (NK) cells in the tumor microenvironment. Also, the drug candidate increases expression of PD-1 on the immune cells, which provides a boost to drugs like Opdivo and avelumab.

Last week, Nektar Therapeutics updated data from a Phase I/II trial at the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer meeting that showed an improvement over previous data released last year. At SITC, Nektar’s data showed an overall response rate of 53 percent. That was seen in 20 of 38 patients with metastatic stage IV melanoma. Additionally, 24 percent of the patients showed a complete response rate. That was an improvement over data released last year at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which showed a significant drop in ORR.

At SITC, Jonathan Zalevsky, Nektar’s chief scientific officer, said the data for NKTR-214 combined with Opdivo shows “deep and durable responses in first-line IO-naive Stage IV melanoma patients, including a high rate of complete responses.”   For our TLR agonist candidate, NKTR-262, we presented data demonstrating alteration of the tumor microenvironment, including activating the innate and adaptive arms of the immune system along with encouraging anti-tumor activity."

The new data was enough for Canaccord Genuity to rate the company’s stock as a buy.

“With its broad mechanism of expanding and activating T-effector cells regardless of PD-L1 status and across tumor types, we continue to view NKTR-214 as a promising contender in cancer immunotherapy. We view NKTR’s immunology and oncology pipeline as attractive and reiterate our Buy,” Canaccord’s Arlinda Lee said.

While Canaccord was bullish on Nektar, some investors have filed a class action lawsuit against the company that claims the company misled investors on the early development of NKTR-214.

That is the environment that Lin enters as head of oncology at Nektar. Lin, who spent seven years as Genentech’s global development leader for immunotherapy in lung and head and neck cancer, will join Nektar to drive development of NKTR-214 and other company assets. Nektar Chief Medical Officer Mary Tagliaferri said Lin will be “instrumental” in developing trial strategy and design as the company advances its immuno-oncology pipeline.

“These programs are based on unique mechanisms that target and activate multiple processes of the immune system. I look forward to contributing to their continued advancement so we can provide better treatment options to patients in need,” Lin said in a statement.

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