As­traZeneca gives it­self top marks for R&D pro­duc­tiv­i­ty makeover — but the ju­ry is still out

Is As­traZeneca a mod­el for Big Phar­ma R&D suc­cess?

Look­ing over their num­bers for Q3 last No­vem­ber, you’d be hard pressed to make that case. Five years af­ter they promised to turn around a deeply trou­bled com­pa­ny, CEO Pas­cal So­ri­ot and his ex­ec­u­tive crew were still on the de­fen­sive as they walked an­a­lysts through the lat­est slip­page on the prod­uct rev­enue side of the busi­ness. Prod­uct sales were down 3%, fol­low­ing an 11% drop in H1. And af­ter five years at the helm, So­ri­ot was still not say­ing when the great de­cline would end.

Mene Pan­ga­los

In­side the R&D or­ga­ni­za­tion, though, a group led by Mene Pan­ga­los — who heads the In­no­v­a­tive Med­i­cines and Ear­ly De­vel­op­ment unit at As­traZeneca — has stud­ied 11 years of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty num­bers for the phar­ma gi­ant. And in a thor­ough analy­sis pub­lished in Na­ture Re­views Drug Dis­cov­ery they say they’re now whip­ping the in­dus­try stan­dard on R&D pro­duc­tiv­i­ty af­ter strip­ping down the ear­ly-stage pipeline — qua­dru­pling their suc­cess rate.

Key­ing off of a re­or­ga­ni­za­tion launched in 2011, As­traZeneca’s team says they tracked a nom­i­na­tion-through-Phase III suc­cess rate of 4% for the five years pre­vi­ous, even worse than the aw­ful 5% in­dus­try av­er­age they cite from the Cen­tre for Med­i­cines Re­search. (There are no agreed up­on fig­ures here, with some es­ti­mates set at a 90% fail­ure rate, though every­one would agree that suc­cess rates on this stan­dard are re­mark­ably low.)

The suc­cess rate in Phase II was 15%, well un­der a 22% stan­dard, says the com­pa­ny.

At that point, As­traZeneca be­gan its own ver­sion of an R&D re­struc­tur­ing fo­cused on what it calls the 5R frame­work that cen­tered on the right tar­get, the right tis­sue, the right safe­ty, the right pa­tient and the right com­mer­cial po­ten­tial. It’s al­so re­drawn the bound­aries of R&D around four core fields.

And As­traZeneca al­so gives it­self a pat on the back on the big C — cul­ture.

Plac­ing em­pha­sis on ‘truth-seek­ing’ be­hav­iour and ask­ing the ‘killer’ ques­tions for a project have been a cru­cial part of our cul­tur­al change. We have con­tin­ued to push the theme of ‘right cul­ture’ by im­ple­ment­ing stronger quan­ti­ta­tive sci­ences and quan­ti­ta­tive de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

Pas­cal So­ri­ot

Af­ter slash­ing the num­ber of pro­grams go­ing in­to the clin­ic, As­traZeneca says that it’s been able to track a clear rise in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, with their start-through-Phase III suc­cess rate for 2012 to 2016 jump­ing to 19%. The cost for a suc­cess­ful pro­gram has gone down sig­nif­i­cant­ly as well.

And to top it all off, the com­pa­ny says that in­dus­try an­a­lysts are tac­it­ly en­dors­ing their ap­proach, much more like­ly to of­fer a buy rat­ing on the stock.

So every­thing is great?

Not by half.

As­traZeneca has had some no­table wins, par­tic­u­lar­ly in on­col­o­gy. But some of those same bull­ish an­a­lysts have been grow­ing restive about So­ri­ot’s strat­e­gy of sell­ing off what he con­sid­ers non-core — or of­ten dis­ap­point­ing — as­sets. They would al­so like some clear ev­i­dence that the com­pa­ny has hit rock bot­tom and is com­ing back up, a hard test for any R&D pro­duc­tiv­i­ty stan­dard.

So­ri­ot built the sto­ry of the com­pa­ny’s prospects in can­cer around a com­bi­na­tion of two check­point in­hibitors, Imfinzi and treme­li­mum­ab, which failed the first leg of the piv­otal tri­al. And the ex­ec­u­tive team still faces a moun­tain­ous chal­lenge in hit­ting am­bi­tious rev­enue pro­jec­tions So­ri­ot set while fend­ing off a buy­out at­tempt by Pfiz­er.

So­ri­ot him­self nev­er de­nied he was se­ri­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing a leap to Te­va last year, which didn’t ex­act­ly look like an en­dorse­ment of the com­pa­ny’s R&D suc­cess.

As­traZeneca was the in­dus­try’s bas­ket case when So­ri­ot took over in 2012. It’s less so now. But no one is call­ing the makeover a clear suc­cess, yet.

Ex­cept for As­traZeneca.

And if in fact you can turn around the suc­cess rate in R&D and still fail to achieve the kind of near-term com­mer­cial suc­cess you need, what does that say about ROI in Big Phar­ma over­all?

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

How to col­lect and sub­mit RWD to win ap­proval for a new drug in­di­ca­tion: FDA spells it out in a long-await­ed guid­ance

Real-world data is messy. There can be differences in the standards used to collect different types of data, differences in terminologies and curation strategies, and even in the way data is exchanged.

While acknowledging this somewhat controlled chaos, the FDA is now explaining how biopharma companies can submit study data derived from real-world data (RWD) sources in applicable regulatory submissions, including new drug indications.

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David Livingston (Credit: Michael Sazel for CeMM)

Renowned Dana-Far­ber sci­en­tist, men­tor and bio­phar­ma ad­vi­sor David Liv­ingston has died

David Livingston, the Dana-Farber/Harvard Med scientist who helped shine a light on some of the key molecular drivers of breast and ovarian cancer, died unexpectedly last Sunday.

One of the senior leaders at Dana-Farber during his nearly half century of work there, Livingston was credited with shedding light on the genes that regulate cell growth, with insights into inherited BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that helped lay the scientific foundation for targeted therapies and earlier detection that have transformed the field.

David Lockhart, ReCode Therapeutics CEO

Pfiz­er throws its weight be­hind LNP play­er eye­ing mR­NA treat­ments for CF, PCD

David Lockhart did not see the meteoric rise of messenger RNA and lipid nanoparticles coming.

Thanks to the worldwide fight against Covid-19, mRNA — the genetic code that can be engineered to turn the body into a mini protein factory — and LNPs, those tiny bubbles of fat carrying those instructions, have found their way into hundreds of millions of people. Within the biotech world, pioneers like Alnylam and Intellia have demonstrated just how versatile LNPs can be as a delivery vehicle for anything from siRNA to CRISPR/Cas9.

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No­vo CEO Lars Fruer­gaard Jør­gensen on R&D risk, the deal strat­e­gy and tar­gets for gen­der di­ver­si­ty

 

I kicked off our European R&D summit last week with a conversation involving Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen. Novo is aiming to launch a new era of obesity management with a new approval for semaglutide. And Jørgensen had a lot to say about what comes next in R&D, how they manage risk and gender diversity targets at the trendsetting European pharma giant.

John Carroll: I’m here with Lars Jørgensen, the CEO of Novo Nordisk. Lars, it’s been a really interesting year so far with Novo Nordisk, right? You’ve projected a new era of growing sales. You’ve been able to expand on the GLP-1 franchise that was already well established in diabetes now going into obesity. And I think a tremendous number of people are really interested in how that’s working out. You have forecast a growing amount of sales. We don’t know specifically how that might play out. I know a lot of the analysts have different ideas, how those numbers might play out, but that we are in fact embarking on a new era for Novo Nordisk in terms of what the company’s capable of doing and what it’s able to do and what it wants to do. And I wanted to start off by asking you about obesity in particular. Semaglutide has been approved in the United States for obesity. It’s an area of R&D that’s been very troubled for decades. There have been weight loss drugs that have come along. They’ve attracted a lot of attention, but they haven’t actually ever gained traction in the market. My first question is what’s different this time about obesity? What is different about this drug and why do you expect it to work now whereas previous drugs haven’t?

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Leen Kawas (L) has resigned as CEO of Athira and will be replaced by COO Mark Litton

Ex­clu­sive: Athi­ra CEO Leen Kawas re­signs af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion finds she ma­nip­u­lat­ed da­ta

Leen Kawas, CEO and founder of the Alzheimer’s upstart Athira Pharma, has resigned after an internal investigation found she altered images in her doctoral thesis and four other papers that were foundational to establishing the company.

Mark Litton, the company’s COO since June 2019 and a longtime biotech executive, has been named full-time CEO. Kawas, meanwhile, will no longer have ties to the company except for owning a few hundred thousand shares.

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Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca CEO (via Getty images)

UP­DAT­ED: FDA slaps As­traZeneca's MCL-1 can­cer drug with a hold af­ter safe­ty is­sue — 2 years af­ter Am­gen axed a trou­bled ri­val

There are new questions being posed about a class of cancer drugs in the wake of the second FDA-enforced clinical hold in the field.

Two years after the FDA hit Amgen with a clinical hold on its MCL-1 inhibitor AMG 397 following signs of cardiac toxicity, AstraZeneca says that regulators hit them with a hold on their rival therapy of the same class.

The pharma giant noted on clinicaltrials.gov that its Phase I/II study for the MCL-1 drug AZD5991 “has been put on hold to allow further evaluation of safety related information.”

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Sur­geons suc­cess­ful­ly at­tach pig kid­ney to a hu­man for the first time, us­ing tech from Unit­ed's Re­vivi­cor

In a first, researchers reportedly successfully transplanted a pig kidney into a human without triggering an immediate immune response this week. And the technology came from the biotech United Therapeutics.

Surgeons spent three days attaching the kidney to the patient’s blood vessels, but when all was said and done, the kidney appeared to be functioning normally in early testing, Reuters and the New York Times were among those to report. The kidney came from a genetically altered pig developed through United’s Revivicor unit.

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Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL, foreground) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) (Patrick Semansky/AP Images)

Sen­a­tors back FDA's plan to re­quire manda­to­ry pre­scriber ed­u­ca­tion for opi­oids

Three Senate Democrats are backing an FDA plan to require mandatory prescriber education for opioids as overdose deaths have risen sharply over the past decade, with almost 97,000 American opioid-related overdose deaths in the past year alone.

While acknowledging a decline in overall opioid analgesic dispensing in recent years, the FDA said it’s reconsidering the need for mandatory prescriber training through a REMS given the current situation with overdoses, and is seeking input on the aspects of the opioid crisis that mandatory training could potentially mitigate.