BioReg­num: What’s the deal with Bio­gen?

The view from End­points

“We are in a world of eat or be eat­en,” Cowen’s Er­ic Schmidt told the Boston Globe about Bio­gen. “If they don’t re­de­ploy their cash ef­fi­cient­ly or prop­er­ly, there’s al­ways a chance that some­body may come in and mon­e­tize their as­sets for them.”

Sound fa­mil­iar? That was from a year ago, as a set­back on its new Alzheimer’s drug co­in­cid­ed with fal­ter­ing Tec­fidera sales to set the stage for what has be­come a mantra: Bio­gen has to ei­ther get mov­ing and start strik­ing some ma­jor drug deals, or it will face a takeover. So it’s no won­der that with no block­buster-style deals in 12 months, we’re see­ing re­ports pop up now as ex­ec­u­tives at oth­er Big Phar­mas have start­ed sound­ing out Bio­gen’s board mem­bers about their in­ter­est in sell­ing the com­pa­ny.

The big­ger ques­tion: Why did it even take this long?

A new re­port from Reuters adds a few telling de­tails to this week’s hot sto­ry from the Wall Street Jour­nal that Bio­gen has been in­for­mal­ly ap­proached about a pos­si­ble buy­out by Mer­ck and Al­ler­gan. The over­tures were large­ly ca­su­al­ly di­rect­ed at in­di­vid­ual board mem­bers. And they ap­peared most­ly de­signed to see if there was some kind of in­ter­est in a friend­ly merg­er.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Mer­ck’s in­ter­est is stronger than Al­ler­gan’s, ac­cord­ing to Reuters. But there was nev­er any­thing for­mal put on the ta­ble.

CEO George Scan­gos

Whether or not Mer­ck or any oth­er com­pa­ny will make an of­fer, the ru­mors are swirling around a com­pa­ny that has be­come dis­tinct­ly vul­ner­a­ble over the past year as its flag­ship drug wanes. Bio­gen doesn’t have the kind of pipeline that gives an­a­lysts cause to cheer near term cat­a­lysts. And with CEO George Scan­gos now stand­ing with one foot out the door, the com­pa­ny will have to un­der­go ma­jor pipeline changes in or­der to win back Wall Street’s en­thu­si­asm for this com­pa­ny.

One way of do­ing that, and mov­ing past the M&A ru­mors, is by fi­nal­ly grab­bing hold of a late-stage deal that has im­pres­sive po­ten­tial. Cel­gene and Gilead have proven sev­er­al times over the past year that there are ma­jor part­ner­ships to be had. And Bio­gen’s slow mo­tion re­sponse may ex­plain why Scan­gos will soon be de­vot­ing more time to the fam­i­ly back on the West Coast. As of now, Bio­gen ex­ecs have on­ly been able to promise land­mark deals, with­out de­liv­er­ing.

Yes, there was an in­ter­est­ing gene ther­a­py col­lab­o­ra­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, but that’s a dis­cov­ery deal. There was a pact with Mit­subishi Tan­abe last fall, for a Phase II au­toim­mune drug; not enough to rev up much ex­cite­ment. So we’re left with fresh promis­es to con­sid­er.

Here’s Scan­gos from the Q2 call:

Ac­tu­al­ly, we would look at deals at all stages of de­vel­op­ment from pre-clin­i­cal through Phase 3. And we are cur­rent­ly do­ing that. We’re in a num­ber of dis­cus­sions now, and we hope to bring some of those to con­clu­sion.

We are fo­cused large­ly on neu­rol­o­gy. That’s where we have our core ex­per­tise. And I think we be­lieve that the – you can make more so­phis­ti­cat­ed de­ci­sions about things in ar­eas that you un­der­stand re­al­ly in de­tail. So main­ly we’re look­ing in neu­rol­o­gy. With (R&D chief) Mike (Ehlers’) ar­rival, we have a new per­son here who’s got his own set of ex­per­tise, his own views on things. And I would say we wouldn’t rule out things out­side of neu­rol­o­gy, but the bar gets high­er as they get fur­ther from our cen­ter of ex­cel­lence. As Mike put it yes­ter­day, we want to have kind of laser vi­sion, but we don’t want to have tun­nel vi­sion. We want to be open to things that are in­ter­est­ing and can pro­vide share­hold­er val­ue.

We’re well past the point when it be­came ob­vi­ous that Bio­gen had to eat or be eat­en. It may well need to find some­thing out­side of neu­rol­o­gy as well, which has been Scan­gos’ com­fort zone. And the deal(s) needs to in­volve late-stage as­sets with block­buster po­ten­tial.

The ex­pec­ta­tions keep get­ting high­er and the takeover ru­mors aren’t go­ing away un­til Bio­gen fi­nal­ly de­liv­ers.

Con­quer­ing a silent killer: HDV and Eiger Bio­Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals

Hepatitis delta, also known as hepatitis D, is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) that results in the most severe form of human viral hepatitis for which there is no approved therapy.

HDV is a single-stranded, circular RNA virus that requires the envelope protein (HBsAg) of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) for its own assembly. As a result, hepatitis delta virus (HDV) infection occurs only as a co-infection in individuals infected with HBV. However, HDV/HBV co-infections lead to more serious liver disease than HBV infection alone. HDV is associated with faster progression to liver fibrosis (progressing to cirrhosis in about 80% of individuals in 5-10 years), increased risk of liver cancer, and early decompensated cirrhosis and liver failure.
HDV is the most severe form of viral hepatitis with no approved treatment.
Approved nucleos(t)ide treatments for HBV only suppress HBV DNA, do not appreciably impact HBsAg and have no impact on HDV. Investigational agents in development for HBV target multiple new mechanisms. Aspirations are high, but a functional cure for HBV has not been achieved nor is one anticipated in the forseeable future. Without clearance of HBsAg, anti-HBV investigational treatments are not expected to impact the deadly course of HDV infection anytime soon.

No­var­tis is ax­ing 150 ear­ly dis­cov­ery jobs as CNI­BR shifts fo­cus to the de­vel­op­ment side of R&D

Novartis is axing some 150 early discover jobs in Shanghai as it swells its staff on the drug development side of the equation in China. And the company is concurrently beefing up its investment in China’s fast-growing biotech sector with a plan to add to its investments in local VCs.

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Elizabeth Warren speaks during the Nevada Democrats' "First in the West" event at Bellagio Resort & Casino on November 17, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada (Getty Images)

Eliz­a­beth War­ren pro­pos­es us­ing com­pul­so­ry li­cens­ing, an­titrust ac­tions to break bio­phar­ma’s con­trol of drug pric­ing — and here are the block­busters she’s tar­get­ing first

Nancy Pelosi’s drug pricing bill may have sparked some industrial strength headaches on the money side of biopharma, but Elizabeth Warren seems determined to become biopharma’s Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Warren, one of the top-ranked candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination backing Medicare for all, is circulating a new plan that promises to break the industry’s grip on drug prices — and she has some very specific examples of how she would do it.

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Mer­ck’s $1B cash gam­ble pays off with a sur­pris­ing PhI­II car­dio suc­cess for Bay­er’s heart drug veri­ciguat

More than 3 years after Merck stepped up and paid $1 billion in cold, hard cash to gain the US commercial rights to Bayer’s high-risk heart drug vericiguat in a broad-ranging cardio alliance, the partners say their Phase III study has come through with promising data and a date with regulators.
We don’t have the data, and won’t until they put it out at an upcoming scientific session, but Merck touted the results, saying that their big Phase III VICTORIA study hit the primary endpoint  — with vericiguat combined with available therapies reducing “the risk of the composite endpoint of heart failure hospitalization or cardiovascular death in patients with worsening chronic heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF) compared to placebo when given in combination with available heart failure therapies.”
Depending on the hard data, and how it breaks out with the combinations used, this drug could pose a threat to Novartis’ blockbuster drug Entresto, currently at $1.6 billion while analysts expect peak sales to hit $4 billion.
The drug is a soluble guanylate cyclase (sGC) stimulator, which Bayer and Merck have had high hopes for. Evidently, so did cardiologists. Cowen’s last analysis set potential sales at $400 million in 2024, but that number could go up significantly now.
Cowen’s Steve Scala noted this morning:
Vericiguat could be a lucrative product for Merck, and one with potentially under-appreciated value. At Cowen’s Therapeutics Conference in September 2019, 80% of specialists anticipated a positive result from VICTORIA whereas only 51% of investors shared this optimism.
Investigators recruited more than 5,000 patients at more than 600 centers in 42 countries for this study — one of the most expensive propositions in R&D. Millions of people in the US suffer from heart failure with reduced ejection fraction when the failing heart fails to contract properly to eject blood into the system. Bayer holds ex-US rights to the drug and also stands to earn cash from the $1.1 billion in milestones Merck agreed on for their collaboration.
Remarkably, the drug was pushed into Phase III despite failing the mid-stage trial — though investigators flagged a success at the high dose of 10 mg. In VICTORIA, researchers started patients at 2.5 mg and then titrated up to 5 and then 10 mg.

Alk­er­mes forges $950M biotech buy­out deal in a bold bet on an ear­ly-stage CNS drug plat­form

Alkermes $ALKS is investing $100 million cash and committing up to $850 million more in milestones in a big wager on a very early-stage CNS discovery platform. And the biotech is adding $20 million more to fund next year’s new research work on the platform it’s acquiring in today’s buyout with an eye to expanding the research work in oncology.

The biotech, helmed by Richard Pops, is buying Rodin Therapeutics, which had focused early on Alzheimer’s disease. Pops’ buyout, though, isn’t focused solely on the most troublesome sector in pharma R&D.

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(Image: Associated Press)

Amarin emerges from an ex­pert pan­el re­view with a clear en­dorse­ment for Vas­cepa and high odds of suc­cess when the FDA weighs in for­mal­ly

Several FDA experts who gathered Thursday to consider the landmark approval of Vascepa to reduce cardio events in an at-risk population voiced their unease about various aspects of the efficacy and safety data, or ultimately the population it should be used to treat. But the overwhelming belief that the data pointed to the drug’s benefit and clearly outweighed risks carried the day for Amarin.

The panel voted unanimously (16 to 0) to support the company’s positive data presentation — backing an OK for expanding the label to include reducing cardio risk. The vote points Amarin $AMRN down a short path to a formal decision by the FDA, with the odds heavily in its favor. Chances are the rest of the questions about the future of this drug will be hashed out in the label’s small print.

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Left to right: Arthur Pappas, Robert Nelsen, Peter Kolchinsky Doug Cole and David Beier

In rare po­lit­i­cal for­ay, top biotech in­vestors urge Con­gress to re­ject drug pric­ing bill

Thirteen of the top biotech venture capitalists in the country wrote a letter last week warning lawmakers that if Congress passes a drug pricing bill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has put before lawmakers, they won’t be able to invest in biomedical research at their current rate, and patients will suffer.

“If policies such as those included within H.R. 3, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, are passed, our ability to continue to invest in future biomedical innovation will be severely constrained, thus crushing the hopes of millions of patient waiting for the next breakthroughs to treat or cure their cancers, rare genetic diseases, Alzheimer’s, or other serious and life-threatening conditions,” they wrote in a letter addressed to the highest-ranking Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate and acquired by Endpoints News. 

Dicer­na scores broad, 'rest of liv­er' deal with No­vo Nordisk, bag­ging $225M in cash to hit some 30 tar­gets with RNAi plat­form

Turns out Dicerna wasn’t done with deals yet after locking in $200 million upfront from Roche for a hepatitis B cocktail two weeks ago.

Novo Nordisk has signed on as the latest partner to its GalXC RNAi platform, handing over $175 million in cash to claim any and all targets of interest in liver-related cardio-metabolic diseases that are not already reserved in previous pacts. The Danish drugmaker — which has signaled its interest to expand considerably beyond its core diabetes franchise into areas like NASH — is also purchasing $50 million worth of Dicerna’s equity at a 25% premium of $21.93 per share. More research payments and milestones extending to the billions are on the line.

Gene ther­a­py wins the in­side track at EMA; PPD files for IPO

→ Gene therapy maker Orchard Therapeutics has been granted an accelerated assessment for OTL-200 by the EMA’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP). The gene therapy — in development in partnership with the San Raffaele-Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy (SR-Tiget) in Milan, Italy — being used towards the treatment of metachromatic leukodystrophy.

→ Pharmaceutical Product Development has announced that its parent company, PPD, Inc has submitted a draft to the SEC relating to the proposal of an IPO of the parent company’s common stock. Number of shares and price range have not yet been determined.