COVID VaccinesReturn to WorkMental Health

3 Key Takeaways from the World’s Biggest Cancer Conference

June 6, 2017, 5:15 PM UTC
Johns Hopkins Hospital Continues Cancer Research And Treatment
Photograph by Win McNamee via Getty Images

Today is the last day of the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago. The yearly confab is the biggest cancer conference in the world, attracting more than 30,000 oncology researchers, biopharma executives, investors, and public health experts.

ASCO presents tiny biotechs and drug giants alike an opportunity to present their latest clinical trial data for both old and experimental drugs. There are also forums dedicated to policy issues such as drug pricing and medical standards—last year, former Vice President Joe Biden announced a federal Genomic Data Commons to expedite cancer research during a keynote address.

Here are some of the key stories to come out of this year’s meeting.

Smaller companies grab the spotlight with impressive early results.

Several of the biggest headlines to come out of ASCO 2017 involve relatively small companies like Stamford, CT-based Loxo Oncology and China’s Nanjing Legend Biotech. The former saw its stock price soar nearly 50% after unveiling that its lead experimental drug, larotrectinib, produced a response in 76% of patients with a specific kind of genetic marker in a mid-stage trial. That means that the drug could prove effective in a variety of cancers so long as patients have that marker. Nanjing Legend, meanwhile, presented early data on a new kind of cancer treatment (CAR-T, which involves re-engineering patients’ immune cells to fight blood cancers) that could help pit the company against drug giants like Novartis and biotechs like Kite Pharma and Juno Therapeutics which are also working in the field. Nanjing’s product targets a different kind of biomarker and is being tested in multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer.

Pfizer’s $14 billion Medivation deal comes under scrutiny.

Pfizer was considered a major winner when it snapped up cancer biotech Medivation for $14 billion last summer. That offer (a 20% premium over the firm’s market value at the time) came after a frenzy of drug makers tried to land the firm and its prostate cancer treatment Xtandi, most notably France’s Sanofi. But new data presented at ASCO has some analysts wondering if Pfizer overpaid. That’s because Johnson & Johnson’s own therapy Zytiga produced clinical results so impressive that some investors and doctors are already predicting it will become a go-to option for newly-diagnosed men with high-risk prostate cancer. Consider: Zytiga cut the death risk for patients by 38% in a trial, meaning it could soon be prescribed much earlier in the treatment process. The J&J drug had been ceding some market share to Xtandi; that trend could very well reverse itself now.

Drug combinations are the wave of the future—and could accelerate biopharma deals.

One of the biggest trends in oncology R&D is testing out combinations of next-generation cancer immunotherapies called “checkpoint inhibitors” (such as Merck’s Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo) with other cancer treatments in order to make combos which could prove more effective and help a wider swath of patients. There are mountains of clinical studies testing these kinds of drug cocktails, often featuring a backbone checkpoint inhibitor drug in addition to a different type of therapy from a cancer-focused biotech. And that could very well lead to even more consolidation in the oncology sphere, biotech investor and immuno-oncology fund manager Brad Loncar tells Fortune in an interview. “That seems like a logical trend to me,” he said, since bigger drug companies will likely feel compelled to snatch up assets that could make their existing medicines more effective (and rake in more sales).