FDA ex­perts of­fer a big thumbs up for J&J’s flawed ap­pli­ca­tion for ke­t­a­mine-based de­pres­sion drug — but tri­al fail­ures, safe­ty ques­tions spur con­cerns

J&J may have a deeply flawed ap­pli­ca­tion for its new/old drug to treat ma­jor de­pres­sion, but the re­searchers who turned out to present the case for es­ke­t­a­mine en­coun­tered a re­cep­tive au­di­ence of FDA ex­perts on Tues­day. 

By a wide mar­gin — 14 yes, 2 no and 1 ab­sten­tion — the pan­el con­clud­ed that J&J had of­fered “sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence of the ef­fec­tive­ness of es­ke­t­a­mine,” an in­tranasal ver­sion of a pow­er­ful anes­thet­ic called ke­t­a­mine, bet­ter known in par­ty cir­cles as ‘Spe­cial K.’

The key safe­ty is­sue is the known link be­tween the long­time use of ke­t­a­mine and neu­ro­tox­i­c­i­ty. The re­searchers re­lied on pre­clin­i­cal dog and rat stud­ies to make their case — hard­ly the gold stan­dard on safe­ty da­ta. But the pan­el seemed con­tent that a long-term safe­ty study on a post­mar­ket­ing ba­sis would be enough to war­rant an OK now, with 15 vot­ing that J&J had suc­cess­ful­ly out­lined the safe­ty pro­file for an ini­tial ap­proval. And at least one of the au­thor­i­ties not­ed that cur­rent­ly used de­pres­sion drugs al­so have safe­ty is­sues with long­time use.

The mon­ey ques­tion:

Do the ben­e­fits out­weigh the risks? Yes: 14. No: 2. Ab­stain: 1.

J&J calls es­ke­t­a­mine — which they plan to mar­ket as Spra­va­to — the first drug with a new mech­a­nism of ac­tion in de­pres­sion for some 30 years. Of course, ke­t­a­mine has al­so been used off-la­bel for de­pres­sion for years. It’s an NM­DA drug, with ri­vals in the clin­ic from var­i­ous bio­phar­ma com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Al­ler­gan.

“Ke­t­a­mine is a nasty drug,” not­ed pan­el mem­ber Steven Meisel, sys­tem di­rec­tor of med­ica­tion safe­ty at Fairview Health Ser­vices/Health­east Care Sys­tem. “It’s been around for 50 years….But ob­vi­ous­ly we’re us­ing low­er dos­es.” Meisel, though, was im­pressed by a sur­vey re­searchers com­plet­ed that high­light­ed just how much these pa­tients need­ed a new ther­a­py.

“You don’t take that pa­tient’s voice as of­ten as you should in this space.”

“The vast ma­jor­i­ty of these pa­tients will take the risks,” he added. “I think that’s very im­por­tant….”

Two of the stud­ies failed to meet the pri­ma­ry out­come, and that raised con­cerns. 

“What prece­dent is set when 2 of 3 short­er ef­fi­ca­cy stud­ies didn’t meet the pri­ma­ry end­point?” Meisel asked. “That’s some­thing the agency has to wres­tle with. “Do we set a prece­dent that may be hard to step back from.”

If the FDA goes ahead and of­fers a for­mal ap­proval, which looks in­creas­ing­ly like­ly in view of the neu­tral in­ter­nal re­view, they’ll be once again over­look­ing the agency’s gold stan­dard on 2 pos­i­tive, well con­trolled stud­ies. But that’s in­creas­ing­ly com­mon, es­pe­cial­ly un­der com­mis­sion­er Scott Got­tlieb.

J&J ex­pe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant fail­ures with this pro­gram, and has promis­ing da­ta from one late-stage study and a with­draw­al study, which the ex­perts and in­sid­ers seemed will­ing to ac­cept in lieu of a sec­ond well-con­trolled tri­al.

Es­ke­t­a­mine is one of J&J’s top late-stage drugs, which the phar­ma gi­ant be­lieves has block­buster mar­ket po­ten­tial. By all ap­pear­ances, they’ll soon be able to ex­plore just how big this drug can be.

FDA chief Stephen Hahn on Capitol Hill earlier this week (Getty Images)

As FDA’s work­load buck­les un­der the strain, Trump again ac­cus­es the agency of a po­lit­i­cal hit job

Peter Marks appeared before a virtual SVB Leerink audience yesterday and said that his staff at FDA’s CBER is on the verge of working around the clock. Manufacturing inspections, policy work and sponsor communications have all been pushed down the to-do list so that they can be responsive to Covid-related interactions. And the agency’s objective right now? “To save as many lives as we can,” Marks said, likening the mortality on the current outbreak as equivalent to “a nuclear bomb on a small city.”

Mi­no­ryx and Sper­o­genix ink an ex­clu­sive li­cense agree­ment to de­vel­op and com­mer­cial­ize lerigli­ta­zone in Chi­na

September 23, 2020 – Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai (China) and Mataró, Barcelona (Spain)  

Minoryx will receive an upfront and milestone payments of up to $78 million, as well as double digit royalties on annual net sales 

Sperogenix will receive exclusive rights to develop and commercialize leriglitazone for the treatment of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy (X-ALD), a rare life-threatening neurological condition

President Donald Trump reacts after signing an executive order following his remarks on his healthcare policies yesterday in Charlotte, North Carolina (Getty Images)

Op-ed: Will phar­ma re­al­ly pay for Trump’s lat­est law­less promise to 33 mil­lion Medicare ben­e­fi­cia­ries? Not like­ly

Sitting atop the executive branch, President Donald Trump is the ultimate authority at the FDA. He can fast track any vaccine to approval himself. If it came to that, of course.

What he can’t do is unilaterally order the legislative branch to loosen the Treasury’s coffers for $6.6 billion. Nor can he command pharmaceutical companies to pay for $200 vouchers sent to 33 million Medicare beneficiaries for prescription drugs before the election.

President Donald Trump and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn (AP Images)

FDA is­sues fi­nal rule al­low­ing im­por­ta­tion of drugs from Cana­da — but al­so keeps the pow­er to re­voke it

Just over a month away from the presidential election, the FDA has issued a final regulation fulfilling President Trump’s promise to let states import certain prescription drugs from Canada.

On Thursday, Trump told a crowd in North Carolina that the new rule goes into effect “today.” But the published regulation states that it won’t take effect for 60 days. And even then, it could be a while before cheaper drugs make it across the border.

Image credit: AP

The win­dow is wide open as four more biotechs join the go-go IPO class of 2020

It’s another day of hauling cash in the biopharma world as four more IPOs priced Friday and a fifth filed its initial paperwork.

The biggest offering comes from PMV Pharma, an oncology biotech focusing on p53 mutations, which raised $211.8 million after pricing shares at $18 apiece. Prelude Therapeutics, developing PRMT5 inhibitors for rare cancers, was next with a $158 million raise, pricing shares at $19 each. Graybug Vision raised $90 million after pricing at $16 per share for its wet AMD candidates, and breast cancer biotech Greenwich Lifesciences brought up the rear with a small, $7 million raise after pricing shares at $5.75.

J&J of­fers PhI/IIa da­ta show­ing its sin­gle-dose vac­cine can stir up suf­fi­cient im­mune re­sponse

Days after J&J dosed the first participants of its Phase III ENSEMBLE trial, the pharma giant has detailed the early-stage data that gave them confidence in a single-dose regimen.

Testing two dose levels either as a single dose or in a two-dose schedule spaced by 56 days in, the scientists from Janssen, the J&J subsidiary developing its vaccine, reported that the low dose induced a similar immune response as the high dose. The interim Phase I/IIa results were posted in a preprint on medRxiv.

Daniel O'Day, Gilead CEO (Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Play-by-play of Gilead­'s $21B Im­munomedics buy­out de­tails a fren­zied push — and mints a new biotech bil­lion­aire

Immunomedics had not really been looking for a buyout when the year began. Excited by its BLA for Trodelvy, submitted to the FDA in late 2019, executive chairman Behzad Aghazadeh started off looking for potential licensing deals and zeroed in on four potential partners, including Gilead, following January’s JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. Such talks advanced throughout the year, with discussions advancing to the second round in mid-August.

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New York governor Andrew Cuomo (AP Images)

An­drew Cuo­mo says New York will un­der­take its own vac­cine re­view process, and wouldn’t rec­om­mend trust­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment

The concerns keep mounting over President Donald Trump’s politicization of the FDA and other federal agencies guiding the development of a safe and effective vaccine. And today, the telegenic New York governor Andrew Cuomo appeared to introduce even more politics into the matter — latest in an ongoing series of incidents that have cast the proudly independent FDA in starkly political terms.

During his daily press conference Cuomo said that the state will review any coronavirus vaccines approved by the federal government, citing a lack of trust in the Trump administration. The announcement comes one day after Trump accused the FDA of making an “extremely political” move in proposing stricter vaccine guidance.

President Trump walks past HHS secretary Alex Azar (Getty Images)

Azar falls in line un­der Trump again. Ex­perts say he's re­in­forc­ing a dark sig­nal sent to the FDA

In the latest incident where Alex Azar has steadfastly taken the side of President Donald Trump over that of the FDA, the HHS secretary was noncommittal this morning when asked if he supports the attempt by his subordinates at the FDA to strengthen guidelines for a vaccine EUA.

Appearing on NBC’s Today Show, the HHS secretary muddied the waters, stating that the guidance that matters is the one that is “actually already out there.”