Four Questions with Pankaj Bhargava: Expanding Gilead’s Immuno-Oncology Portfolio

Stories@Gilead - May 30, 2020

Pankaj Bhargava, Vice President of Clinical Research, has been the ad-interim Therapeutic Area Head for Oncology at Gilead. He joined Gilead in 2018 and has more than 20 years of experience leading oncology innovation. In addition to his role at Gilead, Pankaj works to educate the next generation of researchers as a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

Leading up to this weekend’s American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting, which is being held virtually this year, we connected with Pankaj for an interview on Gilead’s emerging immuno-oncology pipeline, the recent acquisition of Forty Seven and Gilead’s announcement this week of a collaboration with Arcus Biosciences.

Q: ASCO is always a highly anticipated and important event that provides a look into the latest advancements in oncology research. What have you been excited to share from Gilead’s research pipeline this year?
Pankaj: This year I’ve been most looking forward to discussing our innovative approach to targeting the CD47 pathway to potentially improve treatment outcomes for people with certain types of cancer. The CD47 protein is overexpressed by many types of cancerous tumors and sends a “don’t eat me” signal that prevents macrophages in the immune system from eliminating the cancer cells.

Our investigational anti-CD47 antibody, magrolimab,* which we gained through the acquisition of Forty Seven this year, has demonstrated the potential to block CD47. This allows a patient’s innate immune system to identify and kill cancer cells. At ASCO we’re presenting encouraging data from studies of magrolimab in myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloid leukemia. We have all been excited to share these results with the broader oncology community.

Leading up to ASCO, I have also been looking forward to the presentations of the Kite data, as our colleagues continue to lead in the field of cell therapy.

Q: Magrolimab came to Gilead through the recent acquisition of Forty Seven. This week Gilead announced an agreement with Arcus Biosciences to partner on the development and commercialization of current and future immuno-oncology candidates in Arcus’s pipeline. What role do these recent deals play in Gilead’s broader oncology strategy?
Pankaj: We’ve made a strategic decision to focus specifically on building our expertise in immuno-oncology. The addition of Forty Seven and our exciting new agreement with Arcus play important roles in that effort.

In addition to molecules gained through these agreements, Gilead has several additional promising oncology programs, including our internally discovered small molecule PD-L1 inhibitor and the anti-CD73-TGFb bifunctional antibody licensed from Agenus. The Forty Seven acquisition and Arcus partnership have accelerated our progress in immuno-oncology and these deals demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that we have access to the best scientific innovation in the field. We have welcomed new colleagues from Forty Seven to Gilead and look forward to collaborating with them and with the scientists at Arcus to work toward transforming the care for people with cancer.

Q: Why have Gilead and Kite chosen to focus so specifically on immuno-oncology?
Pankaj: We believe immuno-oncology has the potential to allow us to reach new frontiers in treating patients with cancer. With the acquisition of Kite in 2017, Gilead took its first steps toward building a presence in immuno-oncology, as the addition of Kite’s programs provided an entry to the field of cell therapy. This novel way of empowering the patient’s own T cells to fight their cancer is an incredibly innovative approach that is still relatively new and has immense potential. However, it’s not the only way we can harness the abilities of the human immune system. Our teams at Gilead are focused on how we can use therapeutics – such as antibodies, small molecules and other approaches – to eliminate impediments to the immune system regulating the growth of cancerous cells.

The acquisition of Forty Seven complements this work by providing a potential first-in-class, clinical-stage therapeutic – magrolimab – that targets an innate immune mechanism that we didn’t previously have in our portfolio. The agreement with Arcus further builds on our immuno-oncology work by providing Gilead with access to an extensive and diverse immuno-oncology pipeline targeting different immune mechanisms. So with our focus on immuno-oncology, we are exploring a vast array of different approaches to treat various forms of cancer

Q: In your role as a Clinical Assistant Professor at UCSF, how are you working to inspire and educate the next generation of scientists and researchers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Pankaj: The COVID-19 pandemic is a defining moment in history. The biopharmaceutical industry, including Gilead, is working to advance COVID-19 therapies and vaccines, and that very desire and passion to help patients is what drives all of our own work.

I encourage students to view this time of uncertainty as motivation to proceed relentlessly with research and education. Throughout the world, we are witnessing firsthand the power of science and medicine. I tell my students they have an opportunity to be a part of this research. The energy that they dedicate to research now has the potential to lead to discovery and development of a medicine that may save thousands of lives in the future.

I hope some of the discoveries we have made at Gilead, as well as others across the biopharmaceutical industry, will serve as inspiration for the next generation of scientists, who we will rely on to continue the research, discovery and development of innovative medicines.

*Magrolimab is an investigational agent and has not been approved for use by any regulatory agency globally. Its safety and efficacy have not been established.