Steve King was appointed President and CEO of Peregrine Pharmaceuticals in March 2003 and has led the company into three phase II clinical programs. Steve holds BS and MS degrees in biology from Texas Tech University
You’ve been involved with Peregrine from the 1990s, and have been CEO of the company since 2003. How do you reflect upon the progress that the immunotherapy field has made during this period?
Well, I think it’s been extremely exciting over the last few years. I liken it to when antibodies were first discovered- everyone was very excited about the potential they had with creating more targeted therapies. However, it took a long time for them to actually come into the mainstream, but now they’re a major part of the oncology field.
I think immunotherapy seems like a very similar story. At the beginning, there was not a lot of enthusiasm and, unfortunately, a lot of failures over the years. However, with the recent approval of the multiple indications of the PD-1 inhibitors, and most other immunotherapies, I think it has come into the golden age for immunotherapies.
Therefore I think it’s a very exciting time to be involved in immunotherapy. It’s been great to see how the field has evolved, not just the drugs that have progressed but also how the knowledge of the immune system and how to really utilise it to fight cancer, has come along.
At ASCO, Dr Anthony Tolcher from the South Texas Accelerated Research Institute asked a provocative question: ‘does the current proliferation of clinical trials and immunotherapy, represent a period of growth, or a worrisome bubble?’ In your opinion, do you think the immunotherapy field is in a bubble?
I think any time there’s success in an area there tends to be a gold rush of enthusiasm in the field. From that standpoint, I do think there’s certainly a big swell of activity. There are a lot of combinations in the clinic and a lot of people trying to fit in and understand what role the current, approved immunotherapies are going to take and what needs to be done to improve those.
So I think the immunotherapy field is in a bubble, but I think it’s a very positive bubble, and there are a lot of opportunities to improve on the great progress we’ve made in the immunotherapy field. This progress will hopefully extend to benefit more and more patients. I think the important question for the field is how do you take the patients who aren’t getting the big benefits and get them to respond to the therapy? Above all, there is a need to create more opportunities to find these working combinations.
The big news of 2015 was Peregrine’s clinical collaboration with AstraZeneca in order to advance Bavituximab into a combination therapy. Do you have any advice for other biotechs looking to establish partnerships with big pharma, in order to advance their pipelines into the field of combination therapies?
Yes, I think the key is to find the right scientific rationale for the combinations and create a win-win situation. For a single company, it takes a while to really understand and execute their strategy for development. However, when you put two companies together, it becomes more difficult. Therefore I think it’s really about creating those win-win situations, where you’re both going to get something positive out of the relationship. This also helps to advance the knowledge of both the compounds you’re trying to combine together.
We have seen a lot of progress in the immunotherapy qualities in advanced melanoma, and NSCLC. How can combination therapy bring these benefits into the larger patient population?
I think this is where the scientific knowledge and medical knowledge behind why more patients aren’t responding to therapies is critical. It’s clear that in some tumour types, even within some of the indications like melanoma and lung cancer where there’s been a success, it’s becoming clear that some patients don’t have a primed immune response that you can take advantage of through immunotherapy.
I think it’s identifying those combinations that activate the immune system, in the tumour microenvironments, so you can get the whole benefit of the currently approved therapies.
We’re learning more and more every year, which is exciting because it will allow us to make more rational decisions on what to combine together in order to get the maximum benefit for the patients.
What criteria is Peregrine using to choose their different cancer combinations across the industry?
For us, it’s all about the scientific rationale behind the combination. Our particular compound, Bavituximab, changes the tumour microenvironment and makes it a more pro-inflammatory microenvironment. We’re trying to find compounds which will extend that immune response. It is about thinking rationally, through the pathways of inhibition, and finding those right combination partners. We are looking to find compounds that can be used to build upon each other in order to get a synergistic effect rather than adding two compounds together and getting an additive effect.