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.


Paul Hudson, Getty Images

UP­DAT­ED: Sanofi CEO Hud­son lays out new R&D fo­cus — chop­ping di­a­betes, car­dio and slash­ing $2B-plus costs in sur­gi­cal dis­sec­tion

Earlier on Monday, new Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson baited the hook on his upcoming strategy presentation Tuesday with a tell-tale deal to buy Synthorx for $2.5 billion. That fits squarely with hints that he’s pointing the company to a bigger future in oncology, which also squares with a major industry tilt.

In a big reveal later in the day, though, Hudson offered a slate of stunners on his plans to surgically dissect and reassemble the portfoloio, saying that the company is dropping cardio and diabetes research — which covers two of its biggest franchise arenas. Sanofi missed the boat on developing new diabetes drugs, and now it’s pulling out entirely. As part of the pullback, it’s dropping efpeglenatide, their once-weekly GLP-1 injection for diabetes.

“To be out of cardiovascular and diabetes is not easy for a company like ours with an incredibly proud history,” Hudson said on a call with reporters, according to the Wall Street Journal. “As tough a choice as that is, we’re making that choice.”

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Psilocybin mushrooms (via The Denver Post)

In a key step for psy­che­del­ic re­search, mag­ic mush­room com­pound clears first clin­i­cal safe­ty hur­dle

Exasperated with the often-ineffective existing slate of antidepressants, COMPASS Pathways set up shop in London 2016 — and made a beeline for psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms.

On Wednesday, the startup said its man-made version of the chemical — which is illegal across geographies in its natural fungi form — had been well-tolerated in an early-stage, placebo-controlled trial in 89 healthy volunteers.

Al­pham­ab On­col­o­gy rounds out HKEX's sec­ond biotech IPO year with $230M raise and high lo­cal in­ter­est

Alphamab Oncology has inspired a surge of local interest in what will likely be the Hong Kong Stock Exchange’s last biotech run of the year, pricing its IPO on the high end of the range and raising over $230 million (HK$1.83 billion).

After rejigging the offering structure and making up to 50% available for enthusiastic local investors, the biotech sold 179.4 million shares at $1.31 (HK$10.2) and saw its stock rise to $1.77 ($13.8) on the first day of trading.

For sale: Long-act­ing PhI­II GLP-1 di­a­betes drug that’s way be­hind ri­vals, now spurned by Sanofi

Almost exactly 4 years ago Sanofi came to the bargaining table with South Korea’s Hanmi bearing $434 million dollars in cash and offering about $4 billion in milestones to in-license their once-weekly GLP-1 injectable. The pact was intended to revive their ailing diabetes division. Instead, it turned into a very expensive grave to mark the end of Sanofi’s R&D ambitions in the field.

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson used efpeglenatide’s demise — while committing to paying hundreds of millions of more dollars to push it through 5 late-stage studies — as a marker of the company’s determination to stay focused on first and best-in-class drugs.

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Parkin­son's trans­plants emerge as stem cell pi­o­neer Jeanne Lor­ing joins R&D race

Jeanne Loring hadn’t studied Parkinson’s in 22 years when she got an email from a local neurologist.

The neurologist, Melissa Houser, didn’t know Loring had ever published on the disease. She was just looking for a stem cell researcher who might hear her out. 

“I think I was just picked out a hat,” Loring told Endpoints News. 

At a meeting in Loring’s Scripps Research office, Houser and a Parkinson’s nurse practitioner, Sherrie Gould, asked her why there was so much research done in stem cell transplants for other neurodegenerative diseases but not Parkinson’s. They wanted to know if she would work on one. 

What does $6.9B buy these days in on­col­o­gy R&D? As­traZeneca has a land­mark an­swer

Given the way the FDA has been whisking through new drug approvals months ahead of their PDUFA date, AstraZeneca and their partners Daiichi Sankyo may not have to wait until Q2 of next year to get a green light on trastuzumab deruxtecan (DS-8201).

The pharma giant this morning played their ace in the hole, showing off why they were willing to commit to a $6.9 billion deal — with $1.35 billion in a cash upfront — to partner on the drug.

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Paul Hudson, Sanofi

Paul Hud­son promis­es a bright new fu­ture at Sanofi, kick­ing loose me-too drugs and fo­cus­ing on land­mark ad­vances. But can he de­liv­er?

Paul Hudson was on a mission Tuesday morning as he stood up to address Sanofi’s new R&D and business strategy.

Still fresh into the job, the new CEO set out to convince his audience — including the legions of nervous staffers inevitably devoting much of their day to listening in — that the pharma giant is shedding the layers of bureaucracy that had held them back from making progress in the past, dropping the duds in the pipeline and reprioritizing a more narrow set of experimental drugs that were promised as first-in-class or best-in-class.  The company, he added, is now positioned to “go after other opportunities” that could offer a transformational approach to treating its core diseases.

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Large advertisements for the drug Vivitrol decorate the walls of Grand Central Station on June 15, 2017 in New York City. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein via Getty)

FDA slaps down Alk­er­mes for mis­lead­ing Viv­it­rol ads — don't for­get vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to opi­oid over­dose

The ads piqued interest as soon as they started appearing in 2016: at Grand Central Station, on the Red Line in Cambridge, and on a billboard off the New Jersey Turnpike. All showed a young person, generally with his or her arms crossed, and the question, “what is Vivitrol?”

Vivitrol’s maker, Alkermes, was in the midst of a marketing and lobbying campaign to promote the anti-opioid addiction drug — a campaign that would face significant backlash for tarnishing competitors despite little evidence for Vivitrol’s superiority.

FDA in-house re­view spot­lights an is­sue with one of Hori­zon's end­points but notes ef­fi­ca­cy for lead drug

The FDA in-house review highlights a disagreement of investigators’ use of a key endpoint by Horizon Pharma in the late-stage trial for the top drug in its pipeline, but largely agreed that the antibody was effective.

Horizon submitted a BLA for thyroid eye disease (TED) drug teprotumumab in March, less than two years after they bought the drug (and the rest of a division) from Narrow River for $145 million upfront. With breakthrough status, priority review, orphan designation and in-house sales projections of up to $750 million, the one-time Roche reject became the marquee pipeline asset for a company that’s developed some of the world’s most expensive drugs.