Juno and the FDA screwed up. Peo­ple died. What now?

Let’s say it plain and sim­ple: Juno Ther­a­peu­tics $JUNO and the FDA screwed up and pa­tients died.

The day ahead of Thanks­giv­ing, Juno man­aged to once again stun its in­vestors with the news that its lead CAR-T, JCAR015, killed two peo­ple. They died from cere­bral ede­mas trig­gered by neu­ro­tox­i­c­i­ty. And the death toll from brain swelling trig­gered by its tox­ic com­bo has now reached six, in­clud­ing a death in a sep­a­rate study.

Yes, these were very sick peo­ple. But you shouldn’t gam­ble with any­one’s life, even if they’re liv­ing un­der a death sen­tence. And that’s ex­act­ly what Juno and the FDA did do, if you strip the case down to the bare es­sen­tials.

Do we re­al­ly know what’s go­ing on here? an an­a­lyst asked Juno ex­ec­u­tives last week.

The an­swer is an ob­vi­ous ‘no.’

It all start­ed on Ju­ly 7,  when Juno ac­knowl­edged the first three deaths and an­nounced the clin­i­cal hold. On Ju­ly 12, the FDA gave them the green light to re­sume the study.

I sus­pect that Juno ini­tial­ly de­cid­ed to fin­ger flu­dara­bine, one of the pre­con­di­tion­ing agents used to help the en­gi­neered cell ther­a­py pop­u­late and make it more ef­fec­tive, be­cause it was the sim­plest and fastest way to present a case that they could quick­ly make their treat­ment rel­a­tive­ly safe. The al­ter­na­tive was to go back to the draw­ing board and start all over, try­ing to gauge just the right mix of drugs. The FDA bought off on it in record time — on­ly three work days lat­er — and lift­ed the clin­i­cal hold.

I’m not say­ing that top Juno ex­ecs or FDA of­fi­cials were du­plic­i­tous or didn’t be­lieve that they were right. That would be a crime. But they were clear­ly wrong, and Juno reck­less­ly jumped back in­to hu­man test­ing with­out be­ing re­quired by reg­u­la­tors to prove their case and make the prop­er ad­just­ments.

Just a ca­su­al scan of the field would raise se­ri­ous ques­tions about Juno’s lethal­ly flawed judg­ment. Flu­dara­bine is com­mon­ly used in cell ther­a­pies, and specif­i­cal­ly in the ri­val CAR-Ts that Juno was rac­ing to get through the clin­ic. (Once Juno fell be­hind Kite, which us­es flu­dara­bine in its mix, CEO Hans Bish­op made much of the fact that this wasn’t race. But I’ll guar­an­tee you that that is ex­act­ly how an­a­lysts and re­porters have been view­ing this all along, with Juno’s en­cour­age­ment as it aimed at first-mover ad­van­tage or a best-in-class run­ner-up po­si­tion.)

Com­ing hot on the heels of the FDA’s de­ci­sion to ap­prove Sarep­ta’s eteplirsen while most agency in­sid­ers still view it as a deeply flawed ex­per­i­men­tal ther­a­py that could al­so be dan­ger­ous for pa­tients, it’s clear that the FDA has slipped the leash of com­mon sense. The pen­du­lum has swung from over­cau­tious to over-ea­ger to ac­com­mo­date bio­phar­ma in 5 years.

It is a dan­ger­ous and dis­turb­ing sit­u­a­tion. But in­stead of log­i­cal­ly ap­ply­ing a more cau­tious ap­proach where need­ed, it’s more than ob­vi­ous that the sen­ti­ment of the new ad­min­is­tra­tion — and Con­gress — is to con­tin­ue to speed de­vel­op­ment re­gard­less of the cir­cum­stances. Let’s be clear, though, that these new drugs won’t be the “cures” that the gen­er­al pub­lic may ex­pect. They can some­times al­so kill. And it won’t al­ways be dead or slow­ly dy­ing pa­tients on the list.

The FDA needs to un­der­take an in­ter­nal re­view and de­ter­mine what went wrong. This should nev­er hap­pen again. As it stands now, it al­most cer­tain­ly will.


Bioreg­num is an opin­ion col­umn from the ed­i­tors of End­points News

Chris Gibson (Photo By Vaughn Ridley/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images)

Re­cur­sion founders gin for­tunes as IPO back­ers show­er $436M on one of the biggest boasts in AI -- based on some very small deals

In the AI drug development world, boasting often comes with the territory. Yet few can rival Recursion when it comes to claiming the lead role in what company execs like to call the industrialization of drug development, with promises of continued exponential growth in the number of drugs it has in the pipeline.

On Friday, the Salt Lake City-based biotech translated its unicorn-sized boasts into a killer IPO, pricing more than 24 million shares at the high end of its range and bringing in $436 million — with a large chunk of that promised by some deep-pocket backers.

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BY­OD Best Prac­tices: How Mo­bile De­vice Strat­e­gy Leads to More Pa­tient-Cen­tric Clin­i­cal Tri­als

Some of the most time- and cost-consuming components of clinical research center on gathering, analyzing, and reporting data. To improve efficiency, many clinical trial sponsors have shifted to electronic clinical outcome assessments (eCOA), including electronic patient-reported outcome (ePRO) tools.

In most cases, patients enter data using apps installed on provisioned devices. At a time when 81% of Americans own a smartphone, why not use the device they rely on every day?

Covid-19 vac­cine halt drags on, an FDA ap­point­ment at long last, the great CRO con­sol­i­da­tion, and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

Conference season is upon us, and while we’d much prefer to be wandering down the hallways and presentation rooms in person, the team is ready to cover the most consequential data coming out of these scientific meetings. Get in touch early if you have news to share.

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Eli Lil­ly asks FDA to re­voke EUA for Covid-19 treat­ment

Eli Lilly on Friday requested that the FDA revoke the emergency authorization for its Covid-19 drug bamlanivimab, which is no longer as effective as a combo therapy because of a rise in coronavirus variants across the US.

“With the growing prevalence of variants in the U.S. that bamlanivimab alone may not fully neutralize, and with sufficient supply of etesevimab, we believe now is the right time to complete our planned transition and focus on the administration of these two neutralizing antibodies together,” Daniel Skovronsky, Lilly’s CSO, said in a statement.

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Ex­clu­sive in­ter­view: Pe­ter Marks on why full Covid-19 vac­cine ap­provals could be just months away

Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, took time out of his busy schedule last Friday to discuss with Endpoints News all things related to his work regulating vaccines and the pandemic.

Marks, who quietly coined the name “Operation Warp Speed” before deciding to stick with his work regulating vaccines at the FDA rather than join the Trump-era program, has been the face of vaccine regulation for the FDA throughout the pandemic, and is usually spotted in Zoom meetings seated in front of his wife’s paintings.

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Near­ly a year af­ter Au­den­tes' gene ther­a­py deaths, the tri­al con­tin­ues. What hap­pened re­mains a mys­tery

Natalie Holles was five months into her tenure as Audentes CEO and working to smooth out a $3 billion merger when the world crashed in.

Holles and her team received word on the morning of May 5 that, hours before, a patient died in a trial for their lead gene therapy. They went into triage mode, alerting the FDA, calling trial investigators to begin to understand what happened, and, the next day, writing a letter to alert the patient community so they would be the first to know. “We wanted to be as forthright and transparent as possible,” Holles told me late last month.

The brief letter noted two other patients also suffered severe reactions after receiving a high dose of the therapy and were undergoing treatment. One died a month and a half later, at which point news of the deaths became public, jolting an emergent gene therapy field and raising questions about the safety of the high doses Audentes and others were now using. The third patient died in August.

“It was deeply saddening,” Holles said. “But I was — we were — resolute and determined to understand what happened and learn from it and get back on track.”

Eleven months have now passed since the first death and the therapy, a potential cure for a rare and fatal muscle-wasting disease called X-linked myotubular myopathy, is back on track, the FDA having cleared the company to resume dosing at a lower level. Audentes itself is no more; last month, Japanese pharma giant Astellas announced it had completed working out the kinks of the $3 billion merger and had restructured and rebranded the subsidiary as Astellas Gene Therapies. Holles, having successfully steered both efforts, departed.

Still, questions about precisely what led to the deaths of the 3 boys still linger. Trial investigators released key details about the case last August and December, pointing to a biological landmine that Audentes could not have seen coming — a moment of profound medical misfortune. In an emerging field that’s promised cures for devastating diseases but also seen its share of safety setbacks, the cases provided a cautionary tale.

Audentes “contributed in a positive way by giving a painful but important example for others to look at and learn from,” Terry Flotte, dean of the UMass School of Medicine and editor of the journal Human Gene Therapy, told me. “I can’t see anything they did wrong.”

Yet some researchers say they’re still waiting on Astellas to release more data. The company has yet to publish a full paper detailing what happened, nor have they indicated that they will. In the meantime, it remains unclear what triggered the events and how to prevent them in the future.

“Since Audentes was the first one and we don’t have additional information, we’re kind of in a holding pattern, flying around, waiting to figure out how to land our vehicles,” said Jude Samulski, professor of pharmacology at UNC’s Gene Therapy Center and CSO of the gene therapy biotech AskBio, now a subsidiary of Bayer.

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J&J faces CDC ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee again next week to weigh Covid-19 vac­cine risks

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices punted earlier this week on deciding whether or not to recommend lifting a pause on the administration of J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine, but the committee will meet again in an emergency session next Friday to discuss the safety issues further.

The timing of the meeting likely means that the J&J vaccine will not return to the US market before the end of next week as the FDA looks to work hand-in-hand with the CDC to ensure the benefits of the vaccine still outweigh the risks for all age groups.

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Albert Bourla (Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Opin­ion: Pfiz­er, BioN­Tech did­n't take US gov­ern­men­t's sup­port to de­vel­op their vac­cine. Let's stop rewrit­ing the facts

Pfizer and BioNTech declined to take R&D or manufacturing funding from the US government for their Covid-19 vaccine — and they’ve been pretty loud in saying that.

But months after their shot won emergency approval — with millions of Americans now vaccinated — there’s a rewriting of history ongoing that would make it appear Pfizer took help from the government. The implications of that narrative retooling could have a big impact on public perception and policy in the coming months.

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Osman Kibar (Samumed, now Biosplice)

Os­man Kibar lays down his hand at Sa­mumed, step­ping away from CEO role as his once-her­ald­ed an­ti-ag­ing biotech re­brands

Samumed made quite the entrance back in 2016, when it launched with some anti-aging programs and a whopping $12 billion valuation. That level of fanfare was nowhere to be found on Thursday, when the company added another $120 million to its coffers and quietly changed its name to Biosplice Therapeutics.

Why the sudden rebrand?

“We did that for obvious reasons,” CFO and CBO Erich Horsley told Endpoints News. “The name Biosplice echoes our science much more than Samumed does.”

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