Seattle-based cancer immunotherapy company Juno Therapeutics handily beat analyst expectations for the fourth quarter, posting $21.2 million in revenue, compared to an expected $14.6 million, with a loss of 51 cents a share, better than the expected loss of 61 cents.
But the biotech company also announced a possible setback: it will be dropping its most-advanced drug, JCAR015, an immunotherapy treatment that was being studied as a treatment for patients with advanced lymphoma.
Juno’s stock stayed relatively steady in after-hours trading Wednesday, dipping a few percentage points to $24.64 by 2 p.m.
A clinical trial of JCAR015 was suspended in July after three patient deaths, resumed after the company tweaked the chemotherapy drug used along with it, and then suspended again after two more deaths in November. On today’s earnings call with investors, Juno CEO Hans Bishop said the company has decided to drop the drug in favor of a similar product that is still in early stages of development.
“The delay with JCAR015 means it no longer makes sense to continue its development as we can instead bring forward a defined cell product candidate in a similar time frame,” Bishop said.
The failure of the JCAR015 trial means Juno has fallen behind competitors in the race to get the first CAR T immunotherapy on the market. Competitor Kite Pharmaceuticals announced positive results from its CAR T trial yesterday and is neck-and-neck with Novartis AG to get the first treatment approved by the FDA.
During the call, Bishop said the company had pinpointed the reason that JCAR015 proved toxic to certain patients: the genetically altered T cells used in the treatment expanded too quickly and attacked patients’ healthy tissue along with their cancerous cells.
Bishop said characteristics of the immunotherapy treatment the patients received, including the number and type of T cells used in the treatment, was one of three reasons that the patients developed toxicity that eventually killed them.
Other factors were the treatment given immediately before the cell infusion and factors related to individual patients, including their previous cancer treatments. The changes that Juno made to its protocol during the trial lessened the risk for toxicity, but did not eliminate it, he said.
Despite the setback of JCAR015, the company did see several clinical successes during the year, including an early study of drug JCAR017 in which 60 percent of advanced leukemia patients went into remission, with almost no sign of the toxic side effects that have plagued the JCAR015 trial.
For the full year, the company posted revenue of $79.4 million compared to the expected $70.6 million. Juno’s bottom line for the year also beat expectations, with a loss of $2.42/share compared to an expected loss of $2.60/share.