FDA gives Mer­ck ‘re­al-time’ OK for Keytru­da, of­fer­ing a peek at the lat­est ex­ten­sion of the agen­cy's da­ta ex­press high­way

The FDA doesn’t al­ways wait for a mar­ket­ing ap­pli­ca­tion to come in be­fore it be­gins its re­view these days. And that suits Mer­ck just fine.

The fed­er­al agency has stamped a full ap­proval — fol­low­ing last year’s con­di­tion­al OK — on Mer­ck’s mega-block­buster Keytru­da for front­line use in a chemo com­bo for fight­ing non-squa­mous non-small cell lung can­cer. Reg­u­la­tors based their de­ci­sion on the da­ta set from KEYNOTE-189, put on dis­play last April, one in a se­ries of late-stage tri­als that Mer­ck has been rolling out to grab the lead on the PD-1/L1 mar­ket from a group of tough com­peti­tors at Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb.

The green light is any­thing but un­ex­pect­ed. But it is note­wor­thy for rea­sons that the en­tire in­dus­try should be pay­ing at­ten­tion to.

Roger Perl­mut­ter

What dis­tin­guish­es this par­tic­u­lar OK is the tim­ing. FDA com­mis­sion­er Scott Got­tlieb has been push­ing a new pi­lot pro­gram called re­al-time on­col­o­gy re­views, where reg­u­la­tors start their work ahead of a for­mal ap­pli­ca­tion. The first re­al-time OK went to No­var­tis a few weeks ago for two com­bi­na­tions us­ing Kisqali against breast can­cer. And top-tier drug de­vel­op­ers are find­ing that in­stead of just be­ing greet­ed with an open door, some­times the door is be­ing tak­en off the hinges en­tire­ly.

In this case they were deal­ing with a haz­ard ra­tio of 0.49, mark­ing a 51% drop in the risk of death for pa­tients tak­ing the com­bo. There’s still no me­di­an sur­vival da­ta for the com­bo avail­able, but the matchup of the Keytru­da/chemo ap­proach ver­sus chemo alone pro­vid­ed a clear set of ad­van­tages for Mer­ck.

  • The me­di­an pro­gres­sion-free sur­vival rate was 8.8 months for the com­bo, 4.9 months for chemo alone.
  • The over­all re­sponse rate was 48% com­pared to 19% in the con­trol.
  • Me­di­an re­sponse du­ra­tion hit 11.2 months for the Keytru­da arm and 7.8 months for con­trol.

These re­al-time re­views now on of­fer at the FDA look to ex­tend the da­ta ex­press high­way that’s been built for the agency’s break­through drug des­ig­na­tion and oth­er hur­ry-up cam­paigns that have trans­formed the speed and de­sign of on­col­o­gy stud­ies over the past few years. In this case the FDA wants to re­ly en­tire­ly on US stud­ies, ex­clud­ing any­thing out­side the bor­ders, while pre­fer­ring drugs that are de­liv­er­ing clear ben­e­fits and are be­ing test­ed on some ob­vi­ous end­points. And they don’t want any for­mu­la­tion changes to pon­der when mak­ing a snap call.

The FDA is tak­ing no chances with Keytru­da, a land­mark drug by any de­f­i­n­i­tion that is be­ing pushed through hun­dreds of com­bi­na­tion stud­ies and new ap­proach­es. Got­tlieb is like­ly to earn even more de­vo­tion from the in­dus­try’s lead­ers for fol­low­ing through on im­prov­ing the FDA’s re­spon­sive­ness. And Mer­ck is hap­py to have the fresh set of brag­ging rights to­day.

“Keytru­da is rapid­ly be­com­ing a foun­da­tion for the treat­ment of ap­pro­pri­ate pa­tients with metasta­t­ic non-small cell lung can­cer,” said Mer­ck R&D chief Roger Perl­mut­ter. “To­day’s ap­proval of the ex­pand­ed la­bel for Keytru­da based on da­ta from the KEYNOTE-189 tri­al is an im­por­tant mile­stone.”


What Will it Take to Re­al­ize the Promise and Po­ten­tial of Im­mune Cell Ther­a­pies?

What does it take to get to the finish line with a new cancer therapy – fast? With approvals in place and hundreds of immune cell therapy candidates in the pipeline, the global industry is poised to create a fundamental shift in cancer treatments towards precision medicine. At the same time, unique challenges associated with cell and process complexity present manufacturing bottlenecks that delay speed to market and heighten cost of goods sold (COGS) — these hurdles must be overcome to make precision treatments an option for every cancer patient. This series of articles highlights some of the key manufacturing challenges associated with the production of cell-based cancer therapies as well as the solutions needed to transcend them. Automation, process knowledge, scalability, and assured supply of high-quality starting material and reagents are all critical to realizing the full potential of CAR-based therapies and sustaining the momentum achieved in recent years. The articles will highlight leading-edge technologies that incorporate these features to integrate across workflows, accelerate timelines and reduce COGS – along with how these approaches are enabling the biopharmaceutical industry to cross the finish line faster with new treatment options for patients in need.

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Then tragically, Astellas announced this week that the first patient to receive the new regimen had died, just weeks after administration.

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Amgen VP of R&D David Reese

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Dan O'Day, Gilead CEO (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Eu­ro­pean study finds that Gilead­'s Covid-19 an­tivi­ral remde­sivir shows no clin­i­cal ben­e­fit

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The open-label DisCoVeRy trial enrolled Covid-19 patients across 48 sites in Europe to test a handful of treatments, including remdesivir, lopinavir–ritonavir, lopinavir–ritonavir and interferon beta-1a, and hydroxychloroquine. To participate, patients had to show symptoms for seven days and require oxygen support. A total of 429 patients were randomized to receive remdesivir plus standard of care, while 428 were assigned to standard of care alone.

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Gri­fols drops $1B on Ger­man hold­ing com­pa­ny in con­tin­ued plas­ma push

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Grifols is now the largest shareholder of Biotest, a company valued at more than $1.8 billion. By teaming up, the two will try to increase the number of plasma therapies available and increase patient access around the world, Grifols said in a press release.

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A new way to in­fil­trate (and de­stroy) some of the dead­liest drug-re­sis­tant bugs

About four years ago, Ruben Tommasi, the gregarious scientific chief of antibiotics startup Entasis, walked into a meeting with his top chemist and top biologist to chew over another batch of unchanging results.

“It felt like we were running the same experiment over and over,” Tommasi told Endpoints News. “We had all sort of come to that point in time where we felt like we were banging our heads against the wall.”

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Take­da scores a win for a rare type of lung can­cer, gear­ing up for a show­down with J&J

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