FDA fol­lows through with a ground­break­ing OK for Yescar­ta, Gilead­'s new CAR-T break­through

Just two weeks af­ter Gilead closed on its $12 bil­lion Kite buy­out, the FDA has fol­lowed through with a ground­break­ing ap­proval of Yescar­ta (axi-cel), putting its CAR-T drug neck-and-neck with No­var­tis’ pi­o­neer Kym­ri­ah as the two drugs are prepped for a launch.

In a vir­tu­al heart­beat, Gilead used its con­sid­er­able cash re­serves to reach a deal to buy out Kite and axi-cel 6 weeks ago, ac­quir­ing its new­ly ap­proved CAR-T and all the next-gen tech­nol­o­gy now in the works. The ac­qui­si­tion made Gilead an overnight leader in CAR-T. While beat­en to a his­toric first FDA ap­proval for a CAR-T by an ag­gres­sive group at No­var­tis — ini­tial­ly green-light­ed at the end of Au­gust for pe­di­atric and young adult pa­tients with a form of acute lym­phoblas­tic leukemia — Gilead is re­tain­ing most of the Kite gang and hon­ing its man­u­fac­tur­ing ef­fort, shav­ing off the time it takes to turn around these per­son­al­ized ther­a­pies.

In clas­sic ag­gres­sive form, Gilead came out gun­ning, of­fer­ing the ther­a­py at a price of $373,000 — $102,000 less than its ri­val at No­var­tis. On the oth­er hand, No­var­tis of­fered a val­ue-based deal to a num­ber of pay­ers in which they on­ly get re­im­burse­ment for pa­tients who re­spond to ther­a­py, evening the play­ing field.

Once again, FDA com­mis­sion­er Scott Got­tlieb took the hon­ors in con­grat­u­lat­ing the de­vel­op­ers, as he did when No­var­tis came out in front. And this time, he promised to lend the agency’s help for the rest of the bur­geon­ing cell ther­a­py field. Said Got­tlieb:

“To­day marks an­oth­er mile­stone in the de­vel­op­ment of a whole new sci­en­tif­ic par­a­digm for the treat­ment of se­ri­ous dis­eases. In just sev­er­al decades, gene ther­a­py has gone from be­ing a promis­ing con­cept to a prac­ti­cal so­lu­tion to dead­ly and large­ly un­treat­able forms of can­cer. This ap­proval demon­strates the con­tin­ued mo­men­tum of this promis­ing new area of med­i­cine and we’re com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing and help­ing ex­pe­dite the de­vel­op­ment of these prod­ucts. We will soon re­lease a com­pre­hen­sive pol­i­cy to ad­dress how we plan to sup­port the de­vel­op­ment of cell-based re­gen­er­a­tive med­i­cine. That pol­i­cy will al­so clar­i­fy how we will ap­ply our ex­pe­dit­ed pro­grams to break­through prod­ucts that use CAR-T cells and oth­er gene ther­a­pies. We re­main com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing the ef­fi­cient de­vel­op­ment of safe and ef­fec­tive treat­ments that lever­age these new sci­en­tif­ic plat­forms.”

The CD19 T cell im­munother­a­py — which reengi­neers pa­tient cells in­to a po­tent can­cer ther­a­py — has been ap­proved for adult pa­tients with re­lapsed or re­frac­to­ry large B-cell lym­phoma af­ter two or more lines of sys­temic ther­a­py. That la­bel in­cludes dif­fuse large B-cell lym­phoma (DL­B­CL), pri­ma­ry me­di­asti­nal large B-cell lym­phoma, high-grade B-cell lym­phoma, and DL­B­CL aris­ing from fol­lic­u­lar lym­phoma.

Alessan­dro Ri­va

The R&D work will now be led by Alessan­dro Ri­va, a for­mer No­var­tis sci­en­tist pro­mot­ed yes­ter­day to ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent in charge of on­col­o­gy R&D, with a seat on the lead­er­ship team.

Left be­hind in the race to CAR-T dom­i­nance, for now at least, is Juno Ther­a­peu­tics. Its ri­val drug was mired down by a lethal tox­i­c­i­ty is­sue that killed 5 pa­tients, forc­ing the biotech to switch over to its num­ber 2 pro­gram.

No­var­tis man­aged to sur­prise quite a few an­a­lysts by peg­ging Kym­ri­ah at $475,000, which is sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er than the $600,000 max­i­mum pro­vid­ed in some of the spreads. In a sto­ry we pub­lished yes­ter­day, how­ev­er, a num­ber of ex­perts said the full cost of ther­a­py may well end up at $1 mil­lion to $1.5 mil­lion.

The da­ta, though, are jaw drop­ping.

The FDA’s ap­proval comes through on the da­ta for ZU­MA-1, which demon­strat­ed that 72% of the pa­tients in­volved had an ob­jec­tive re­sponse rate to the ther­a­py. And 51% demon­strat­ed a com­plete re­mis­sion, with no sign of the can­cer left.

In a re­cent farewell let­ter to the staff, Kite CEO Arie Bellde­grun summed it up by writ­ing:

In a span of just a few short years, we grew from few­er than 10 em­ploy­ees to al­most 700. The com­pa­ny’s val­ue in­creased 2300% from the time of our IPO to near­ly $12 bil­lion with the ac­qui­si­tion by Gilead Sci­ences. Our clos­ing $180 per share price rep­re­sents not just a 960% ap­pre­ci­a­tion from the IPO price of $17 per share, but the largest ever pre-com­mer­cial bio­phar­ma ac­qui­si­tion.

Now Gilead can see if it’s ag­gres­sive team can make the most of the block­buster peak sales es­ti­mates that have yet to be climbed.

To­day, Bellde­grun had this to say:

“The FDA ap­proval of Yescar­ta is a land­mark for pa­tients with re­lapsed or re­frac­to­ry large B-cell lym­phoma. This ap­proval would not have been pos­si­ble with­out the coura­geous com­mit­ment of pa­tients and clin­i­cians, as well as the on­go­ing ded­i­ca­tion of Kite’s em­ploy­ees. We must al­so rec­og­nize the FDA for their abil­i­ty to em­brace and sup­port trans­for­ma­tion­al new tech­nolo­gies that treat life-threat­en­ing ill­ness­es. We be­lieve this is on­ly the be­gin­ning for CAR T ther­a­pies.”

Inside FDA HQ (File photo)

The FDA just ap­proved the third Duchenne MD drug. And reg­u­la­tors still don’t know if any of them work

Last year Sarepta hit center stage with the FDA’s controversial reversal of its CRL for the company’s second Duchenne muscular dystrophy drug — after the biotech was ambushed by agency insiders ready to reject a second pitch based on the same disease biomarker used for the first approval for eteplirsen, without actual data on the efficacy of the drug.

On Wednesday the FDA approved the third Duchenne MD drug, based on the same biomarker. And regulators were ready to act yet again despite the lack of efficacy data.

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Cell and Gene Con­tract Man­u­fac­tur­ers Must Em­brace Dig­i­ti­za­tion

The Cell and Gene Industry is growing at a staggering 30% CAGR and is estimated to reach $14B by 20251. A number of cell, gene and stem cell therapy sponsors currently have novel drug substances and products and many rely on Contract Development Manufacturing Organizations (CDMO) to produce them with adherence to stringent regulatory cGMP conditions. Cell and gene manufacturing for both autologous (one to one) and allogenic (one to many) treatments face difficult issues such as: a complex supply chain, variability on patient and cellular level, cell expansion count and a tight scheduling of lot disposition process. This complexity affects quality, compliance and accountability in the entire vein-to-vein process for critically ill patients.

Franz-Werner Haas, CureVac CEO

UP­DAT­ED: On the heels of a snap $1B raise, Cure­Vac out­lines plans to seek emer­gency OK for their Covid-19 vac­cine in a mat­ter of months

CureVac is going from being one of the quietest players in the race to develop a new vaccine to fight the worst public health crisis in a century to a challenger for the multibillion-dollar market that awaits the first vaccines to make it over the finish line. Typically low-key at a time of brash comments and incredibly ambitious development timelines from the leaders, CureVac now is jumping straight into the spotlight.

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US gov­ern­ment re­port­ed­ly be­gins prepar­ing for Covid-19 chal­lenge tri­als. Are they eth­i­cal?

Controversial human challenge trials for potential Covid-19 vaccines reportedly have a new booster — the US government.

Scientists working for the government have begun manufacturing a strain of the novel coronavirus that could be used in such studies, Reuters reported Friday morning. The trials would enroll healthy volunteers to be vaccinated and then intentionally infected with a weakened coronavirus.

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Sanofi vet Kather­ine Bowdish named CEO of PIC Ther­a­peu­tics; As the world Terns: Liv­er dis­ease biotech makes ex­ec­u­tive changes

PIC Therapeutics hasn’t raised much money, yet. But the fledgling biotech has attracted a high-profile player to the helm.

The Boston-based biotech has handed the reins to Katherine Bowdish as its president and CEO. Bowdish will also join the board of directors of PIC. Bowdish joins from Sanofi where she served as VP and head of R&D strategy, as well as helping launch and lead Sanofi Sunrise, a venture investment and partnering vehicle at Sanofi. Before that, Bowdish held several exec roles at Permeon Biologics, Anaphore, Alexion Pharmaceuticals and Prolifaron (acquired by Alexion).

Martin Shkreli (Shutterstock)

Mar­tin Shkre­li con­tin­ued to or­ches­trate an­ti-com­pet­i­tive schemes for Dara­prim be­hind bars — FTC

Martin Shkreli didn’t just blog, read up on drug development news and run his biotech business with a contraband cell phone in prison. According to the FTC, he was also coordinating the anticompetitive scheme to shield Daraprim — the drug at the center of a price-gouging controversy that earned him the “Pharma Bro” nickname — from generic rivals.

Back in January the FTC, together with New York’s attorney general, launched a federal lawsuit against Shkreli, who’s now serving a 7-year sentence for defrauding investors in his hedge fund, alleging that he effectively created a drug monopoly. While Shkreli’s notorious move to raise the per tablet price of Daraprim from $17.50 to $750 was perfectly legal, the tactics he allegedly deployed to box out competitors weren’t.

Trevor Martin (Mammoth)

Eye­ing in-vi­vo edit­ing, Mam­moth li­cens­es Jen­nifer Doud­na’s new CRISPR en­zyme

Last month, Jennifer Doudna revealed in Science a new, “hyper-compact” CRISPR enzyme that was half the size of traditional CRISPR enzymes and could, she suspected, offer a new, more versatile tool for gene editing.

Now, the University of California-Berkeley has licensed that enzyme, known as Casφ, exclusively to a biotech startup she and two former students set up three years ago: Mammoth Biosciences. It’s the second new CRISPR protein Mammoth has licensed from Doudna’s lab, after they licensed Cas14 in 2019.

Clockwise from left: Canaccord Genuity principal Michelle Gilson, Canaccord Genuity CSO Brian Mueller and BioMarin CSO Hank Fuchs (Canaccord Genuity webcast)

Bio­Marin CSO diss­es ri­vals for the he­mo­phil­ia A gene ther­a­py crown: Way be­hind, fac­ing big re­cruit­ment chal­lenges and at best a .6 on the gen-one scale

The leader in the race to a hemophilia A gene therapy does not like to be compared unfavorably to the competition. And when their top execs do the comparing, don’t look for any modesty — BioMarin, they say, owns the lead.

As Factor VIII expression wanes over time, quite a few analysts have raised questions about the kind of future BioMarin’s gene therapy — a supposed once-and-done treatment — faces if it stops working. But just 7 days away from their PDUFA date, with high odds of success, the top execs clearly feel that they are way out front, while promising their rivals will discover there’s a tough slog ahead trying to pursue trials where large numbers of patients are ineligible for new therapies.

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Stéphane Bancel speaks to President Donald Trump at the White House meeting on March 2 (AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mod­er­na of­fers steep dis­count in US sup­ply deal — but still takes the crown with close to $2.5B in vac­cine con­tracts

The US pre-order for Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine is in.

Operation Warp Speed is reserving $1.525 billion for 100 million doses of Moderna’s Phase III mRNA candidate, rounding out to about $15 per dose — including $300 million in incentive payments for timely delivery. Given that Moderna has a two-dose regimen, it’s good for vaccinating 50 million people. The US government also has the option to purchase another 400 million doses for a total of $6.6 billion, or $16.5 per dose.

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