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. 

Hal Barron and Rick Klausner (GSK, Lyell)

Ex­clu­sive: GSK’s Hal Bar­ron al­lies with Rick Klaus­ner’s $600M cell ther­a­py start­up, look­ing to break new ground blitz­ing sol­id tu­mors

LONDON — Chances are, you’ve heard little or nothing about Rick Klausner’s startup Lyell. But that ends now.

Klausner, the former head of the National Cancer Institute, former executive director for global health at the Gates Foundation, co-founder at Juno and one of the leaders in the booming cell therapy field, has brought together one of the most prominent teams of scientists tackling cell therapy 2.0 — highlighted by a quest to bridge a daunting tech gap that separates some profound advances in blood cancers with solid tumors. And today he’s officially adding Hal Barron and GlaxoSmithKline as a major league collaborator which is pitching in a large portion of the $600 million he’s raised in the past year to make that vision a reality.

“We’ve being staying stealth,” Klausner tells me, then adding with a chuckle: “and going back to stealth after this.”

“Cell therapy has a lot of challenges,” notes Barron, the R&D chief at GSK, ticking off the resistance put up by solid tumors to cell therapies, the vein-to-vein time involved in taking immune cells out of patients, engineering them to attack cancer cells, and getting them back in, and more. “Over the years Rick and I talked about how it would be wonderful to take that on as a mission.”

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First place fin­ish: Eli Lil­ly just moved to fran­chise leader with their sec­ond mi­graine drug OK in 1 year

In a rare twist for Eli Lilly’s historically slow-moving R&D group, the pharma giant has seized bragging rights to a first-in-class new drug approval. And all signs point to an aggressive marketing followup as they look to outclass some major franchise rivals hobbled by internal dissension.

The FDA came through with an OK for lasmiditan on Friday evening, branding it as Reyvow and lining it up — once a substance classification comes through from the DEA — for a major market release. The oral drug binds to 5-HT1F receptors and is designed to stop an acute migraine after it starts. That makes it a complementary therapy to their CGRP drug Emgality, which has a statistically significant impact on preventing attacks.

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Allogene HQ Open House on September 17, 2019 in South San Francisco. (Jeff Rumans, Endpoints News)

The next 10 years: Where is biotech head­ed?

The last 10 years have seen a revolution in drug development. Timelines have shortened, particularly in oncology. Regulators have opened up. Investment has skyrocketed. China became a player. Biotechs have multiplied as gene and cell therapy has exploded — offering major new advances in the way diseases are treated, and sometimes cured.

So where are we headed from here? I journeyed out to San Francisco in September to discuss the answer to that question at Allogene’s open house. If the last 10 years have been an eye-opener, what does the next decade hold in store?

Patrick Mahaffy, Getty Images

Court green-lights Clo­vis case af­ter de­tail­ing ev­i­dence the board ‘ig­nored red flags’ on false safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta

Clovis investors have cleared a major hurdle in their long-running case against the board of directors, with a Delaware court making a rare finding that they had a strong enough case against the board to proceed with the action.

In a detailed ruling at the beginning of the month that’s been getting careful scrutiny at firms specializing in biotech and corporate governance, the Delaware Court of Chancery found that the attorneys for the investors had made a careful case that the board — a collection of experts that includes high-profile biotech entrepreneurs, a Harvard professor and well-known investigator as well as Clovis CEO Patrick Mahaffy — repeatedly ignored obvious warnings that Mahaffy’s executive crew was touting inflated, unconfirmed data for their big drug Roci. Serious safety issues were also reportedly overlooked while the company continued a fundraising campaign that brought in more than a half-billion dollars. And that leaves the board open to claims related to their role in the fiasco.

The bottom line:

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Bill Gates backs Gink­go Biowork­s' $350M raise to fu­el the buzzy syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy 'rev­o­lu­tion'

If you want to understand Ginkgo Bioworks, the name should suffice: Bioworks, a spin off “ironworks,” that old industrial linchpin devoted to leveraging scale as a wellspring for vast new industries capable of remaking society. Ginkgo wants to be the ironworks for the revolution it’s heralded with as much fanfare as they can, playing off of one of the buzziest technologies in biotech.

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UCB bags a ri­val to Soliris in $2.1B buy­out deal — but will an in­creas­ing­ly vig­i­lant FTC sign off?

UCB is buying out Ra Pharma $RARX, announcing an acquisition deal that rings up at $48 a share, or $2.1 billion net of cash, and puts them toe-to-toe with Alexion on a clinical showdown.

Ra shares closed at $22.70 on Wednesday.

There’s a small pipeline in play at Ra, but UCB is going for the lead drug — a C5 inhibitor called zilucoplan in Phase III for myasthenia gravis (MG) looking to play rival to Alexion’s Soliris. Soliris has the market advantage, though, with a much earlier approval in MG in late 2017 that UCB feels confident in challenging.

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A new play­er is tak­ing the field in a push for a he­mo­phil­ia A gene ther­a­py, and it’s a big one

BioMarin, the execs at Spark (and buyer-to-be Roche) as well as the Sangamo/Pfizer team have a new rival striding onto the hemophilia block. And it’s a big one.

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Stuck with a PhI­II gene ther­a­py fail­ure at 96 weeks, Gen­Sight prefers the up­beat as­sess­ment

Two years after treatment, the best thing that GenSight Biologics $SIGHT can say about their gene therapy for vision-destroying cases of Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy is that it’s just a bit better than a placebo — just maybe because one treatment can cover both eyes.

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George Scangos / Credit: Cornell University

ARCH, Soft­Bank-backed Vir Biotech­nol­o­gy un­der­whelms with $143 mil­lion IPO

George Scangos went back to Wall Street, and came back 700 million pennies short.

Scangos’ vaunted startup Vir Biotechnology raised $143 million in an IPO they hoped would earn $150 million. Shares were priced at $20, the low-end of the $20-$22 target.

Launched with backing from ARCH Venture’s Robert Nelsen, Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Vision Fund, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the infectious disease startup was one of a new wave of well-resourced biotechs that emerged with deep enough coffers to pursue a full R&D line rather than slowly build their case by picking off a single lead program.