Mark Pruzanski, Intercept CEO (GlobeNewswire via YouTube)

FDA re­jects In­ter­cept’s pitch for NASH as CEO fires back at the agency’s ‘evolv­ing’ guide­lines

In a ma­jor set­back for an al­ready ail­ing field, the FDA has re­ject­ed obeti­cholic acid, the In­ter­cept Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals com­pound that would have been the first drug specif­i­cal­ly ap­proved to treat NASH.

The In­ter­cept drug had, in Feb­ru­ary of 2019, yield­ed the first pos­i­tive Phase III re­sults for the obe­si­ty-re­lat­ed liv­er con­di­tion and its sub­se­quent NDA sub­mis­sion was close­ly watched around the in­dus­try as the first test for how reg­u­la­tors would treat the nascent but fast-grow­ing field.

Yet con­fi­dence that an ap­proval would come had been wan­ing for months. The drug was sched­uled for an ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee hear­ing on April 22, but in March In­ter­cept an­nounced the meet­ing was de­layed to June 9th due to Covid-19. Then in May, In­ter­cept said that hear­ing was post­poned again to “ac­com­mo­date the re­view of ad­di­tion­al da­ta re­quest­ed by the FDA.” In­ter­cept didn’t spec­i­fy what da­ta the FDA want­ed, but shares flagged and an­a­lysts were di­vid­ed over how omi­nous the de­lay was. SVB Leerink’s Thomas Smith wrote it “in­jects ad­di­tion­al un­cer­tain­ty” on “po­ten­tial ap­proval/la­bel/tim­ing.”

Now, In­ter­cept says, the FDA re­ject­ed the drug be­cause they were un­cer­tain if the sur­ro­gate end­point from their Phase III tri­al — re­duc­tion in liv­er fi­bro­sis — would ac­tu­al­ly trans­late in­to ben­e­fit for pa­tients. The FDA in­vit­ed them to re-sub­mit with longer term da­ta from the Phase III tri­al, but In­ter­cept spoke harsh­ly against the de­ci­sion.

In a state­ment that could lay the ground­work for an ap­peal, CEO Mark Pruzan­s­ki crit­i­cized the agency for can­cel­ing the ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee hear­ing, said their re­view as “in­com­plete,” and ar­gued the agency re­peat­ed­ly moved the goal­posts for ap­proval in a way that could pre­vent the de­vel­op­ment of new ther­a­pies.

At no point dur­ing the re­view did the FDA com­mu­ni­cate that OCA was not ap­prov­able on an ac­cel­er­at­ed ba­sis, and we strong­ly be­lieve that the to­tal­i­ty of da­ta sub­mit­ted to date both meet the re­quire­ments of the Agency’s own guid­ance and clear­ly sup­port the pos­i­tive ben­e­fit-risk pro­file of OCA. We are dis­ap­point­ed to see the de­ter­mi­na­tion the Agency has reached based on an ap­par­ent­ly in­com­plete re­view, and with­out hav­ing pro­vid­ed med­ical ex­perts and pa­tients the op­por­tu­ni­ty to be heard at the an­tic­i­pat­ed Ad­com on the mer­its of OCA, which is a des­ig­nat­ed Break­through Ther­a­py. The FDA has pro­gres­sive­ly in­creased the com­plex­i­ty of the his­to­log­ic end­points, cre­at­ing a very high bar that on­ly OCA has so far met in a piv­otal Phase 3 study. On be­half of the he­pa­tol­ogy com­mu­ni­ty, we are very con­cerned that the Agency’s ap­par­ent­ly still evolv­ing ex­pec­ta­tions will make it ex­ceed­ing­ly chal­leng­ing to bring in­no­v­a­tive ther­a­pies to NASH pa­tients with high un­met med­ical need.

Shares of the com­pa­ny nose­dived on the news from $77 to to $48, shav­ing off over a $1 bil­lion in mar­ket cap. Pro­ject­ing In­ter­cept to trend to­ward $50, Jef­feries’ Michael Yee called the news “a sur­prise down­side sce­nario that was not ex­pect­ed and un­for­tu­nate­ly leaves in­vestors in a pro­longed pe­ri­od of chal­leng­ing un­cer­tain­ty now.”

On a con­fer­ence call Mon­day morn­ing, Pruzan­s­ki told an­a­lysts that the last he heard from the agency was that they would get back to In­ter­cept about resched­ul­ing an ad­vi­so­ry hear­ing. Then on the PDU­FA date of June 26, they re­ceived a let­ter that an im­prove­ment in fi­bro­sis — which, In­ter­cept said, the FDA had in­di­cat­ed would be enough for ap­proval — wasn’t enough to prove the drug was worth its risk.

“What’s new here is the ques­tion­ing — with­out re­al­ly sub­stan­ti­a­tion, as far as we could tell — on the ben­e­fit side,” Pruzan­s­ki said. “It’s hard to know what’s go­ing on.”

Al­though mixed in their re­ac­tions to the news, an­a­lysts ex­pressed ex­pressed broad sur­prise the FDA and In­ter­cept would be on such marked­ly dif­fer­ent pages, giv­en that the drug had achieved a break­through des­ig­na­tion that is sup­posed to open close chan­nels be­tween the par­ties. The frac­ture, they said, could be spe­cif­ic to In­ter­cept, but could al­so point to where the bar will be for fu­ture NASH sub­mis­sions.

“It is un­clear at this point how sig­nif­i­cant­ly the CRL af­fects OCA’s reg­u­la­to­ry path for­ward in NASH,” Smith wrote in a note fol­low­ing the news, “nor are the broad­er im­pli­ca­tions on the reg­u­la­to­ry path­way for oth­er drugs be­ing de­vel­oped in NASH clear at this time.”

The re­jec­tion is the lat­est in a se­ries of strug­gles for the NASH field. NASH, or non­al­co­holic steato­hep­ati­tis, refers to fat buildup in the liv­er that caus­es in­flam­ma­tion and scar­ring. It was lit­tle known in the biotech world be­fore the 2014 JP Mor­gan con­fer­ence, when In­ter­cept re­leased a batch of Phase II da­ta that sent their stock soar­ing. With mil­lions of Amer­i­cans po­ten­tial­ly suf­fer­ing from the con­di­tion, the dis­ease has since at­tract­ed sig­nif­i­cant buzz, but in the past year, it’s seen a string of tri­al fail­ures, most no­tably from Gilead.

Al­though nu­mer­ous drug­mak­ers have ear­ly-stage can­di­dates in the pipeline, the In­ter­cept CRL could push the first ap­proval back sig­nif­i­cant­ly. The oth­er ma­jor late-stage ef­fort, from the French biotech Gen­Fit, failed in May.

Al­though it’s im­pos­si­ble to know the pre­cise guid­ance the FDA gave In­ter­cept and oth­er com­pa­nies, sig­nif­i­cant ques­tions did ex­ist for the ef­fi­ca­cy of their drug and oth­er NASH com­pounds. Com­pa­nies have large­ly fo­cused on test­ing to see if their med­i­cines can halt fi­bro­sis or fat ac­cu­mu­la­tion, but they have not yet proven that those will then lead to im­proved sur­vival or pre­vent cir­rho­sis.

In a note, Stifel’s Derek Archi­la ar­gued the CRL was a re­sult of a sin­gle ad­verse event: raised LDL cho­les­terol, which in turn raised car­dio­vas­cu­lar risk. That, he said, could’ve tipped the risk-ben­e­fit pro­file cal­cu­lus for the agency.

An­a­lysts will be watch­ing close­ly to see what da­ta the FDA asks for and its im­pli­ca­tions for all NASH de­vel­op­ers, but there will be im­me­di­ate im­pli­ca­tions for In­ter­cept. The com­pa­ny hired a sales team in prepa­ra­tion for an ap­proval and, Yee not­ed, is cur­rent­ly burn­ing through $300 mil­lion per year, with on­ly $554 mil­lion and $690 mil­lion in debt.

“As we pre­pare to meet with FDA, we will si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly be­gin plan­ning to make sure we’re in a good po­si­tion fi­nan­cial­ly,” Pruzan­s­ki said on the call.

ZS Per­spec­tive: 3 Pre­dic­tions on the Fu­ture of Cell & Gene Ther­a­pies

The field of cell and gene therapies (C&GTs) has seen a renaissance, with first generation commercial therapies such as Kymriah, Yescarta, and Luxturna laying the groundwork for an incoming wave of potentially transformative C&GTs that aim to address diverse disease areas. With this renaissance comes several potential opportunities, of which we discuss three predictions below.

Allogenic Natural Killer (NK) Cells have the potential to displace current Cell Therapies in oncology if proven durable.

Despite being early in development, Allogenic NKs are proving to be an attractive new treatment paradigm in oncology. The question of durability of response with allogenic therapies is still an unknown. Fate Therapeutics’ recent phase 1 data for FT516 showed relatively quicker relapses vs already approved autologous CAR-Ts. However, other manufacturers, like Allogene for their allogenic CAR-T therapy ALLO-501A, are exploring novel lymphodepletion approaches to improve persistence of allogenic cells. Nevertheless, allogenic NKs demonstrate a strong value proposition relative to their T cell counterparts due to comparable response rates (so far) combined with the added advantage of a significantly safer AE profile. Specifically, little to no risk of graft versus host disease (GvHD), cytotoxic release syndrome (CRS), and neurotoxicity (NT) have been seen so far with allogenic NK cells (Fig. 1). In addition, being able to harness an allogenic cell source gives way to operational advantages as “off-the-shelf” products provide improved turnaround time (TAT), scalability, and potentially reduced cost. NKs are currently in development for a variety of overlapping hematological indications with chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-Ts) today, and the question remains to what extent they will disrupt the current cell therapy landscape. Click for more details.

Graphic: Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

What kind of biotech start­up wins a $3B syn­di­cate, woos a gallery of mar­quee sci­en­tists and re­cruits GSK's Hal Bar­ron as CEO in a stun­ner? Let Rick Klaus­ner ex­plain

It started with a question about a lifetime’s dream on a walk with tech investor Yuri Milner.

At the beginning of the great pandemic, former NCI chief and inveterate biotech entrepreneur Rick Klausner and the Facebook billionaire would traipse Los Altos Hills in Silicon Valley Saturday mornings and talk about ideas.

Milner’s question on one of those mornings on foot: “What do you want to do?”

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FDA+ roundup: FDA's neu­ro­science deputy de­parts amid on­go­ing Aduhelm in­ves­ti­ga­tions; Califf on the ropes?

Amid increased scrutiny into the close ties between FDA and Biogen prior to the controversial accelerated approval of Aduhelm, the deputy director of the FDA’s office of neuroscience has called it quits after more than two decades at the agency.

Eric Bastings will now take over as VP of development strategy at Ionis Pharmaceuticals, the company said Wednesday, where he will provide senior clinical and regulatory leadership in support of Ionis’ pipeline.

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CBO: Medicare ne­go­ti­a­tions will ham­per drug de­vel­op­ment more than pre­vi­ous­ly thought

As President Biden’s Build Back Better Act — and, with it, potentially the Democrats’ last shot at major drug pricing reforms in the foreseeable future — remains on life support, the Congressional Budget Office isn’t helping their case.

The CBO last week released a new slide deck, outlining an update to its model on how Medicare negotiations might take a bite out of new drugs making it to market. The new model estimates a 10% long-term reduction in the number of new drugs, whereas a previous CBO report from August estimated that 8% fewer new drugs will enter the market over 30 years.

Joshua Brumm, Dyne Therapeutics CEO

FDA or­ders DMD tri­al halt, rais­ing ques­tions about a whole class of promis­ing drugs

Dyne Therapeutics’ stock took a nasty hit this morning after the biotech put out word that the FDA had slapped a clinical hold on their top program for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. And now speculation is bouncing around Biotwitter that there could be a class effect at work here that would implicate other drug developers in the freeze.

Dyne execs didn’t have a whole lot to say about why the FDA sidelined their IND for DYNE-251 in DMD while “requesting additional clinical and non-clinical information for” the drug.

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Sec­ondary patents prove to be key in biosim­i­lar block­ing strate­gies, re­searchers find

While the US biosimilars industry has generally been a disappointment since its inception, with FDA approving 33 biosimilars since 2015, just a fraction of those have immediately followed their approvals with launches. And more than a handful of biosimilars for two of the biggest blockbusters of all time — AbbVie’s Humira and Amgen’s Enbrel — remain approved by FDA but still have not launched because of legal settlements.

Hal Barron (GSK via YouTube)

GSK R&D chief Hal Bar­ron jumps ship to run a $3B biotech start­up, Tony Wood tapped to re­place him

In a stunning switch, GlaxoSmithKline put out word early Wednesday that R&D chief Hal Barron is exiting the company after 4 years — a relatively brief run for the man chosen by CEO Emma Walmsley in late 2017 to turn around the slow-footed pharma giant.

Barron is being replaced by Tony Wood, a close associate of Barron’s who’s taking one of the top jobs in Big Pharma R&D. He’ll be closer to home, though, for GSK. Barron has been running a UK and Philadelphia-based research organization from his perch in San Francisco.

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Chamath Palihapitiya and Pablo Legorreta

Bil­lion­aires Chamath Pal­i­hapi­tiya and Pablo Legor­re­ta hatch an $825M SPAC for cell ther­a­py biotech

Three years after Royalty Pharma chief Pablo Legorreta led a group of investors to buy up a pair of biotechs and create a new startup called ProKidney, the biotech is jumping straight into an $825 million public shell created by SPAC king and tech billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya.

ProKidney was founded 6 years ago but really got going at the beginning of 2019 with the $62 million acquisition of inRegen, which was working on an autologous — from the patient — cell therapy for kidney disease. After extracting kidney cells from patients, researchers expand the cells in the lab and then inject them back into patients, aiming to restore the kidneys of patients suffering from CKD.

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Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (Credit: World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard)

An un­ortho­dox pro­pos­al for Bio­gen's Medicare-man­dat­ed Aduhelm tri­al

Biogen has gone full blitz since Medicare announced it would only cover its new Alzheimer’s drug when used in clinical trials, accusing the agency of discriminating against Alzheimer’s patients and trying to get physicians to change regulators’ minds.  Critics, meanwhile, cheered what they see as a necessary wall protecting payers and patients from an unproven and unsafe drug.

Far less attention, though, has gone to what a Medicare-funded clinical trial would actually look like. Biogen has operated as if it would be a standard late-stage Alzheimer’s trial, enrolling a couple thousand patients and giving half placebo.

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