Nick Leschly via Getty

Blue­bird shares sink as an­a­lysts puz­zle out $1.8M stick­er shock and an un­ex­pect­ed de­lay

Blue­bird bio $BLUE has un­veiled its price for the new­ly ap­proved gene ther­a­py Zyn­te­glo (Lenti­Glo­bin), which came as a big sur­prise. And it wasn’t the on­ly un­ex­pect­ed twist in to­day’s sto­ry.

With some an­a­lysts bet­ting on a $900,000 price for the β-tha­lassemia treat­ment in Eu­rope, where reg­u­la­tors pro­vid­ed a con­di­tion­al ear­ly OK, blue­bird CEO Nick Leschly said Fri­day morn­ing that the pa­tients who are suc­cess­ful­ly treat­ed with their drug over 5 years will be charged twice that — $1.8 mil­lion — on the con­ti­nent. That makes this drug the sec­ond most ex­pen­sive ther­a­py on the plan­et, just be­hind No­var­tis’ new­ly ap­proved Zol­gens­ma at $2.1 mil­lion, with an­a­lysts still wait­ing to see what kind of pre­mi­um can be had in the US.

Like No­var­tis, blue­bird will be set­ting it up as an in­stall­ment plan, with the charges spread out over 5 years as physi­cians eval­u­ate whether it’s work­ing or not. The com­pa­ny will charge 315,000 eu­ros a year. If it works, the an­nu­al pay­ments will con­tin­ue, Leschly said in a call to­day, “if not, they stop. It’s not rock­et sci­ence; it just makes sense.”

These new, high­er, num­bers will spur an­a­lysts to sit down and crunch the num­bers again for this drug. SVB Leerink es­ti­mat­ed peak sales of $800 mil­lion for the first in­di­ca­tion, with sick­le cell dis­ease tak­ing that in­to block­buster ter­ri­to­ry. 

But in­vestors didn’t warm up to the pre­sen­ta­tion for the biotech, which has a mar­ket cap of $6.5 bil­lion. Blue­bird shares slid 4.5% in ear­ly trad­ing Fri­day. By ear­ly af­ter­noon the stock was more than 5% in the red.

Leschly says blue­bird has es­tab­lished a clear “in­trin­sic” val­ue of $2.1 mil­lion — de­liv­er­ing 22 QALYs, or qual­i­ty-ad­just­ed life years — for the most suc­cess­ful cas­es, not­ing that their price re­flects a 15% dis­count on that fig­ure. But the biotech al­so looked at pro­vid­ing a one-time treat­ment that could de­liv­er a life­time of val­ue — with­out ac­tu­al­ly prov­ing just how long these ther­a­pies can be ef­fec­tive. And they pro­pose be­ing ful­ly paid in 5 years, leav­ing pay­ers to con­sid­er what hap­pens if it fails past that point.

An­oth­er point: This is a com­pli­cat­ed pro­ce­dure, which adds costs on top of the treat­ment ex­pense.

Then, in the ear­ly af­ter­noon, Cowen an­a­lyst Yaron Wer­ber got in­to the act, not­ing his sur­prise that blue­bird is de­lay­ing the launch in or­der to make some last minute changes to the man­u­fac­tur­ing process, which adds an ex­tra el­e­ment of risk for the biotech.

(T)he key un­ex­pect­ed news is that EMA has re­quest­ed amend­ments to the fi­nal drug prod­ucts spec­i­fi­ca­tions and to the man­u­fac­tur­ing pa­ra­me­ters. Hence this de­lays the launch and would re­move any sales in FY19 to ear­ly ’20. The good news is that it would en­able blue to on­board the qual­i­fied treat­ment cen­ters and help fur­ther prep for the launch. How­ev­er, un­ques­tion­ably this re­quest adds an el­e­ment of sur­prise and would re­quire blue to make a few mn­fg process changes ahead of launch which would al­so add some new risk.

Leschly care­ful­ly de­tailed how the com­pa­ny came up with its price and pay­ment mod­el, not­ing that the sys­tem is geared to cov­er­ing the cost of care de­liv­ered over a longterm ba­sis, rather than a po­ten­tial one-time event.

In mak­ing the case for the drug, blue­bird’s CEO used a health eco­nom­ics case, eval­u­at­ing the gains in life ex­pectan­cy and the qual­i­ty of life mea­sures. Leschly al­so specif­i­cal­ly ex­clud­ed the sav­ings from the ther­a­py Zyn­te­glo re­places.

“In prin­ci­ple, I ac­tu­al­ly think this is progress,” says Pe­ter Bach from the Memo­r­i­al Sloan Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter, “I ac­tu­al­ly think it’s a good trend.”

But…

If they re­al­ly want to fol­low through with a rig­or­ous health eco­nom­ics case, says Bach, they should pub­lish their num­bers so pay­ers could take a care­ful look at how they ac­tu­al­ly stack up. Al­so, if they want­ed to be con­sis­tent, he adds, the com­pa­ny could start with a price that made sense based on the da­ta at hand, and then ad­just it as they find out more about how it works on a longterm ba­sis.

“In the old days you could come to mar­ket when you proved drugs work with dura­bil­i­ty. Now they come with un­sure dura­bil­i­ty, but they still want to charge at the up­per end.” And they’re get­ting the full pay­ment for a life­time ben­e­fit in the first 5 years, shift­ing the risk on­to pa­tients and pay­ers.

When it works, blue­bird bio’s gene ther­a­py for β-tha­lassemia has been shown to keep pa­tients trans­fu­sion free for up to 3.8 years, ac­cord­ing to an up­date to­day at the big EHA meet­ing. But even some Wall Street an­a­lysts are hav­ing trou­ble with the price, as well as the mar­ket ex­pec­ta­tions. Piper Jaf­fray’s Tyler Van Bu­ren:

(B)ased on con­sen­sus es­ti­mates, the Street is mod­el­ing that blue­bird trans­plants thou­sands of pa­tients with Zyn­te­glo/Lenti­Glo­bin. Put sim­ply, this is a dis­con­nect that is im­pos­si­ble for us to rec­on­cile. We al­so be­lieve that the $1.8MM price tag of Zyn­te­glo is hard to jus­ti­fy giv­en the $2.1MM comp of Zol­gens­ma, which treats chil­dren with a cer­tain out­come of death, as op­posed to a pop­u­la­tion where the ma­jor­i­ty of pa­tients are ad­e­quate­ly main­tained on trans­fu­sions.

And this is from SVB Leerink’s Mani Foroohar:

Like any cell ther­a­py, ‘process is the prod­uct’ for Zyn­te­glo, and whether the ul­ti­mate com­mer­cial prod­uct will live up to the clin­i­cal da­ta seen to date is un­clear due to nec­es­sary man­u­fac­tur­ing changes — in­creas­ing the risk to the 80% of rev­enue/pa­tient at-risk un­der a 5-yr val­ue based con­tract. More con­cern­ing is that BLUE was un­able to ex­e­cute on the man­u­fac­tur­ing process de­vel­op­ment that is the crit­i­cal core com­pe­ten­cy of any cell ther­a­py fran­chise, per­haps rais­ing ques­tions on the com­pa­ny’s abil­i­ty to hit stat­ed time­lines for many of its pro­grams.

The dev­il, as al­ways, is in the da­ta.

Here’s the lat­est from blue­bird $BLUE: While 8 of 10 pa­tients with a less se­vere form of the dis­ease re­main trans­fu­sion-free in the Phase I/II study used for the reg­u­la­to­ry sub­mis­sions, it’s not a sure thing. And in an­oth­er group of 8 pa­tients with a β0/β0 geno­type, on­ly 3 were trans­fu­sion in­de­pen­dent.

Those re­sults now ex­tend over to the Phase III tri­al, where 4 of 5 pa­tients with­out the β0/β0 geno­type are trans­fu­sion-free. One evalu­able pa­tient with the more se­vere form of the dis­ease achieved in­de­pen­dence from trans­fu­sions, and 5 pa­tients had stopped trans­fu­sions for at least three months.

That 3.8 years of trans­fu­sion in­de­pen­dence is crit­i­cal for blue­bird.

These dis­cus­sions by the pi­o­neers in the field will prove tremen­dous­ly in­flu­en­tial for the rest of the field, lock­ing in price ranges and pay­ment plans that — if they work — may well dic­tate the num­bers for every­one else. 

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan [via Bloomberg/Getty]

I’m not per­fect: No­var­tis chief Vas Narasimhan al­most apol­o­gizes in the wake of a new cri­sis

Vas Narasimhan has warily stepped up with what might pass as something close to a borderline apology for the latest scandal to engulf Novartis.

But he couldn’t quite get there.

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John Hood [file photo]

UP­DAT­ED: Cel­gene and the sci­en­tist who cham­pi­oned fe­dra­tinib's rise from Sanofi's R&D grave­yard win FDA OK

Six years after Sanofi gave it up for dead, the FDA has approved the myelofibrosis drug fedratinib, now owned by Celgene.

The drug will be sold as Inrebic, and will soon land in the portfolio at Bristol-Myers Squibb, which is finalizing a deal to acquire Celgene.

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Jim Mellon [via YouTube]

Health­i­er, longer lifes­pans will be a re­al­i­ty soon­er than you think, Ju­ve­nes­cence promis­es as it clos­es $100M round

Earlier this year, an executive from Juvenescence-backed AgeX predicted the field of longevity will eventually “dwarf the dotcom boom.” Greg Bailey, the UK-based anti-aging biotech’s CEO, certainly hopes so.

On Monday, Juvenescence completed its $100 million Series B round of financing. The company is backed by British billionaire Jim Mellon — who wrote his 400-page guide to investing in the field of longevity shortly after launching the company in 2017.  Bailey, who served as a board director for seven years at Medivation before Pfizer swallowed the biotech for $14 billion, is joined by Declan Doogan, an industry veteran with stints at Pfizer and Amarin.

UP­DAT­ED: AveX­is sci­en­tif­ic founder was axed — and No­var­tis names a new CSO in wake of an ethics scan­dal

Now at the center of a storm of controversy over its decision to keep its knowledge of manipulated data hidden from regulators during an FDA review, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has found a longtime veteran in the ranks to head the scientific work underway at AveXis, where the incident occurred. And the scientific founder has hit the exit.

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Ab­b­Vie gets its FDA OK for JAK in­hibitor upadac­i­tinib, but don’t look for this one to hit ex­ecs’ lofty ex­pec­ta­tions

Another big drug approval came through on Friday afternoon as the FDA OK’d AbbVie’s upadacitinib — an oral JAK1 inhibitor that is hitting the rheumatoid arthritis market with a black box warning of serious malignancies, infections and thrombosis reflecting fears associated with the class.

It will be sold as Rinvoq — at a wholesale price of $59,000 a year — and will likely soon face competition from a drug that AbbVie once controlled, and spurned. Reuters reports that a 4-week supply of Humira, by comparison, is $5,174, adding up to about $67,000 a year.

The top 10 fran­chise drugs in bio­phar­ma his­to­ry will earn a to­tal of $1.4T (tril­lion) by 2024 — what does that tell us?

Just in case you were looking for more evidence of just how important Amgen’s patent win on Enbrel is for the company and its investors, EvaluatePharma has come up with a forward-looking consensus estimate on what the list of top 10 drugs will look like in 2024.

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UP­DAT­ED: Sci­en­tist-CEO ac­cused of im­prop­er­ly us­ing con­fi­den­tial in­fo from uni­corn Alec­tor

The executive team at Alector $ALEC has a bone to pick with scientific co-founder Asa Abeliovich. Their latest quarterly rundown has this brief note buried inside:

On June 18, 2019, we initiated a confidential arbitration proceeding against Dr. Asa Abeliovich, our former consulting co-founder, related to alleged breaches of his consulting agreement and the improper use of our confidential information that he learned during the course of rendering services to us as our consulting Chief Scientific Officer/Chief Innovation Officer. We are in the early stage of this arbitration proceeding and are unable to assess or provide any assurances regarding its possible outcome.

There’s no explicit word in the filing on what kind of confidential info was involved, but the proceeding got started 2 days ahead of Abeliovich’s IPO.

Abeliovich, formerly a tenured associate professor at Columbia, is a top scientist in the field of neurodegeneration, which is where Alector is targeted. More recently, he’s also helped start up Prevail Therapeutics as the CEO, which raised $125 million in an IPO. And there he’s planning on working on new gene therapies that target genetically defined subpopulations of Parkinson’s disease. Followup programs target Gaucher disease, frontotemporal dementia and synucleinopathies.

But this time Abeliovich is the CEO rather than a founding scientist. And some of their pipeline overlaps with Alector’s.

Abeliovich and Prevail, though, aren’t taking this one lying down.

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Chi­na has be­come a CEO-lev­el pri­or­i­ty for multi­na­tion­al phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies: the trend and the im­pli­ca­tions

After a “hot” period of rapid growth between 2009 and 2012, and a relatively “cooler” period of slower growth from 2013 to 2015, China has once again become a top-of-mind priority for the CEOs of most large, multinational pharmaceutical companies.

At the International Pharma Forum, hosted in March in Beijing by the R&D Based Pharmaceutical Association Committee (RDPAC) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), no fewer than seven CEOs of major multinational pharmaceutical firms participated, including GSK, Eli Lilly, LEO Pharma, Merck KGaA, Pfizer, Sanofi and UCB. A few days earlier, the CEOs of several other large multinationals attended the China Development Forum, an annual business forum hosted by the research arm of China’s State Council. It’s hard to imagine any other country, except the US, having such drawing power at CEO level.

As dis­as­ter struck, Ab­b­Vie’s Rick Gon­za­lez swooped in on Al­ler­gan with an of­fer Brent Saun­ders couldn’t say no to

Early March was a no good, awful, terrible time for Allergan CEO Brent Saunders. His big lead drug had imploded in a Phase III disaster and activists were after his hide — or at least his chairman’s title — as the stock price continued a steady droop that had eviscerated share value for investors.

But it was a perfect time for AbbVie CEO Rick Gonzalez to pick up the phone and ask Saunders if he’d like to consider a “strategic” deal.

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