FDA dis­miss­es Alk­er­mes’ pitch on ‘5461, de­mand­ing new de­pres­sion tri­als in a dam­ag­ing set­back

Alk­er­mes $ALKS made a high-stakes gam­ble that the FDA would con­sid­er ap­prov­ing their big de­pres­sion drug ALKS-5461 on the ba­sis of a sin­gle pos­i­tive Phase III study — and they lost. The biotech re­port­ed Mon­day morn­ing that the agency had is­sued a refuse-to-file let­ter for the drug, se­ri­ous­ly de­lay­ing any shot at an OK.

Ac­cord­ing to the com­pa­ny state­ment, the FDA is de­mand­ing more clin­i­cal tri­als to pro­vide a full set of da­ta as well as a “bioavail­abil­i­ty study to gen­er­ate ad­di­tion­al bridg­ing da­ta be­tween ALKS 5461 and the ref­er­ence list­ed drug, buprenor­phine.”

Alk­er­mes’ shares im­me­di­ate­ly plunged more than 20% in pre-mar­ket trad­ing, wip­ing out close to $2 bil­lion in mar­ket cap.

Fac­ing years of ex­pen­sive new clin­i­cal tri­al work, Alk­er­mes ex­ecs im­me­di­ate­ly served no­tice that they plan to ap­peal the de­ci­sion.

“We strong­ly be­lieve that the clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment pro­gram, in­clud­ing da­ta from more than 1,500 pa­tients with MDD, pro­vides sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence of ALKS 5461’s con­sis­tent an­ti­de­pres­sant ac­tiv­i­ty and a fa­vor­able ben­e­fit-risk pro­file,” said CEO Richard Pops.

“To say we were sur­prised is an un­der­state­ment,” Pops said in a call with an­a­lysts Mon­day, not­ing all the da­ta that were gath­ered to­geth­er and their on­go­ing dis­cus­sions with the FDA through the fil­ing.

An­a­lysts im­me­di­ate­ly start­ed as­sess­ing the dam­age, which will be sig­nif­i­cant.

“This is crit­i­cal and is clear­ly be­low ex­pec­ta­tions,” not­ed Ever­core ISI’s Umer Raf­fat. “It was my base case that the on­go­ing add’l Ph 3 would suf­fice … but that doesn’t ap­pear to be the case.”

Asked if Alk­er­mes was pre­pared to go ahead with a new Phase III pro­gram, Pops de­murred.

“I think the smart thing to do is to wait to see the whites of the FDA’s eyes in a Type A meet­ing,” he said.

Their drug hit back-to-back Phase III fail­ures ear­ly in 2017, send­ing the com­pa­ny’s stock in­to a tail­spin. But a re­designed third Phase III hit with pos­i­tive da­ta, en­cour­ag­ing Pops to be­lieve that he could make a case for the drug by com­bin­ing all of the da­ta. De­vel­op­ers typ­i­cal­ly set up a trio of piv­otal tri­als in de­pres­sion, hop­ing that two out of three can es­cape be­ing tak­en down by a high place­bo re­sponse.

Pops start­ed to re­build the ar­gu­ment for this drug be­fore the ini­tial Phase III dust­up had qui­et­ed down. The com­pa­ny cit­ed a trend to­ward sta­tis­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance and not­ed that a post hoc analy­sis as­cer­tained that the en­tire 2mg/2mg dose group in one study — FOR­WARD-4 — achieved the crit­i­cal end­point on the Mont­gomery–Ås­berg De­pres­sion Rat­ing Scale (MADRS-6) scores. Re­searchers went back to the draw­ing board, adding new pa­tients and re­jig­ging its sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis plan for FOR­WARD-5.

FOR­WARD-3 sim­ply failed, says Alk­er­mes, due to a high place­bo re­sponse, a com­mon fea­ture in de­pres­sion. Un­like For­ward-4 and For­ward-5, though, For­ward-3 did not use what’s called a se­quen­tial par­al­lel com­par­i­son de­sign, or SPCD. In an SPCD study, the first round of place­bo pa­tients who don’t re­spond to the drug are re-ran­dom­ized be­tween the drug arm and the sug­ar pill, in or­der to quell the high place­bo re­spons­es that have scut­tled nu­mer­ous oth­er tri­als for de­pres­sion.

What are Alk­er­mes’ chances of chang­ing the FDA’s de­ci­sion? Not good. Top of­fi­cials are well es­tab­lished, of­fer­ing re­peat­ed sig­nals that they’re will­ing to be flex­i­ble on the da­ta when need­ed. If this drug failed to get past Janet Wood­cock as well as FDA com­mis­sion­er Scott Got­tlieb, af­ter the FDA re­versed three oth­er re­jec­tions ear­ly in Got­tlieb’s tenure at the agency, it’s un­like­ly cir­cum­stances will change now.

The RTF no­tice is a par­tic­u­lar­ly harsh blow for Pops, who’s been in­sist­ing to in­vestors that the com­pa­ny would get this past reg­u­la­tors and on­to the mar­ket. Fail­ing to even get past the ini­tial re­view and have the ap­pli­ca­tion spurned at the door will not sit well with com­pa­ny back­ers.


A New Fron­tier: The In­ner Ear

What happens when a successful biotech venture capitalist is unexpectedly diagnosed with a chronic, life-disrupting vertigo disorder? Innovation in neurotology.

That venture capitalist was Jay Lichter, Ph.D., and after learning there was no FDA-approved drug treatment for his condition, Ménière’s disease, he decided to create a company to bring drug development to neurotology. Otonomy was founded in 2008 and is dedicated to finding new drug treatments for the hugely underserved community living with balance and hearing disorders. Helping patients like Jay has been the driving force behind Otonomy, a company heading into a transformative 2020 with three clinical trial readouts: Phase 3 in Ménière’s disease, Phase 2 in tinnitus, and Phase 1/2 in hearing loss. These catalysts, together with others in the field, highlight the emerging opportunity in neurotology.
Otonomy is leading the way in neurotology
Neurotology, or the treatment of inner ear neurological disorders, is a large and untapped market for drug developers: one in eight individuals in the U.S. have moderate-to-severe hearing loss, tinnitus or vertigo disorders such as Ménière’s disease.1 With no FDA-approved drug treatments available for these conditions, the burden on patients—including social anxiety, lower quality of life, reduced work productivity, and higher rates of depression—can be significant.2, 3, 4

Af­ter 4 years of furor, the FTC and New York state ac­cuse Mar­tin Shkre­li of run­ning a drug mo­nop­oly. And this time they plan to squash it

Pharma bro Martin Shkreli was jailed, publicly pilloried and forced to confront some lawmakers in Washington riled by his move to take an old generic and move the price from $17.50 per pill to $750. But through 4 years of controversy and public revulsion, his company never backed away from the price — left uncontrolled by a laissez faire federal policy on a drug’s cost.

Now the FTC and the state of New York plan to pry his fingers off the drug once and for all and open it up to some cheap competition.

Patrik Jonsson, the president of Lilly Bio-Medicines

Who knew? Der­mi­ra’s board kept watch as its stock price tracked Eli Lil­ly’s se­cret bid­ding on a $1.1B buy­out

In just 8 days, from December 6 to December 14, the stock jumped from $7.88 to $12.70 — just under the initial $13 bid. There was no hard news about the company that would explain a rise like that tracking closely to the bid offer, raising the obvious question of whether insider info has leaked out to traders.

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Short at­tack­er Sahm Ad­ran­gi draws crosshairs over a fa­vorite of Sanofi’s new CEO — with PhII da­ta loom­ing

Sahm Adrang Kerrisdale

Kerrisdale chief Sahm Adrangi took a lengthy break from his series of biotech short attacks after his chief analyst in the field pulled up stakes and went solo. But he’s making a return to drug development this morning, drawing crosshairs over a company that’s one of new Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson’s favorite collaborators.

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UP­DAT­ED: Ac­celeron of­fers thumbs up on a PhII suc­cess for would-be block­buster drug — and shares rock­et up

There’s no public data yet, but Acceleron $XLRN says that its first major trial readout of 2020 is a success.

In a Phase II study of 106 patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), Acceleron’s experimental drug sotatercept hit its primary endpoint: a significant reduction in pulmonary vascular resistance. The drug also met three different secondary endpoints, including the 6-minute walking test.

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Civi­ca and Blue Cross Blue Shield launch new ven­ture to low­er gener­ic prices

Five years after Martin Shkreli put a smug face to the volatile prices companies can charge even for generic drugs, payers and governments are coming up with outside-the-box solutions.

The latest fix is a new venture from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, 18 of its members and Civica, the generics company founded in 2018 by hospitals fed up with high prices for drugs that had long-since lost patent protection. While Civica focused on drugs that hospitals purchased, the new company will aim to lower prices on drugs that, like Shkreli’s Daraprim, are purchased by individuals.

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Merck Invests in State-Of-The-Art Biotech Development Facility in Switzerland

Mer­ck KGaA match­es lofty R&D goals with €250M in­vest­ment in­to a new clin­i­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing site in Switzer­land

As Merck KGaA strives to prove itself as a capable biopharma R&D player, it has begun construction on a €250 million facility dedicated to developing and manufacturing drugs for use in clinical trials.

The German drugmaker chose a location at Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, where it already has a commercial manufacturing site, in order to “bridge together research and manufacturing.”

“This investment in the Merck Biotech Development Center reflects our commitment to speed up the availability of new medicines for patients in need, and confirms the importance of Switzerland as our prime hub for the manufacturing of biotech medicines,” CEO Stefan Oschmann said at the groundbreaking ceremony, according to a statement.

Breast can­cer ap­proval in tow, As­traZeneca, Dai­ichi armed an­ti­body scores in key gas­tric can­cer study

AstraZeneca kicked off Monday with a flurry of good news. Apart from unveiling positive results on its stroke trial testing its clot-fighter Brilinta, and welcoming its experimental IL-23 inhibitor brazikumab back from Allergan — the British drugmaker also disclosed some upbeat gastric cancer data on its HER2-positive oncology therapy it is collaborating on with Daiichi Sankyo.

Buoyed by the performance of its oncology drugs, last March AstraZeneca chief Pascal Soriot bet big to partner with Daiichi on the cancer drug, with $1.35 billion upfront in a deal worth up to roughly $7 billion. Roughly 8 months later, as 2019 drew to a close, the FDA swiftly approved the drug — trastuzumab deruxtecan — for use in breast cancer, months ahead of the expected decision date.

Sor­ren­to shrugs off an anony­mous pri­vate eq­ui­ty group’s $1B of­fer to buy the com­pa­ny

San Diego-based Sorrento Therapeutics isn’t going the M&A route — at least not today.

The biotech caused quite a stir when it put out word a few weeks ago that an unidentified private equity group was bidding a billion dollars-plus for the company. The news drove a quick spike in the company’s share price as investors hooked up for the ride — that didn’t happen.

The update sparked a 5% drop in the share price $SRNE ahead of the bell. It’s now trading just above $4, without any evidence that the $7 price looked like it was firm.