Be­lea­guered Zaf­gen crushed af­ter FDA de­mands force it to dump lead drug

Stymied at the FDA with a lin­ger­ing clin­i­cal hold on its lead obe­si­ty drug, Zaf­gen is dump­ing the ther­a­py and re­treat­ing to a pre­clin­i­cal pro­gram in the pipeline.

The biotech an­nounced af­ter the mar­ket closed on Tues­day that it will now cir­cle the wag­ons around ZGN-1061 af­ter be­lo­ranib was linked with the death of two pa­tients in a piv­otal study. Zaf­gen al­so says it will once again re­duce its ranks, chop­ping 34% of the sur­vivors and cut­ting the pay­roll to 31. The re­or­ga­ni­za­tion is claim­ing the jobs of Patrick Lous­tau, pres­i­dent, and Ali­cia Sec­or, chief com­mer­cial of­fi­cer.

Zaf­gen’s al­ready bat­tered shares plunged 50% by mid-morn­ing Wednes­day. Its shares have shed close to 90% of their 52-week high price, leav­ing the mar­ket cap at $93 mil­lion; less than the cash it has on hand.

Zaf­gen strug­gled might­i­ly for months to over­come its prob­lems, but ul­ti­mate­ly the biotech was over­whelmed af­ter a pa­tient died in their Phase III study for Prad­er-Willi syn­drome, which they de­ter­mined was caused by a pul­monary em­bolism. Sub­se­quent­ly an­oth­er pa­tient tak­ing the drug died, al­so from a pul­monary em­bolism, forc­ing the FDA to or­der a com­plete stop to any fur­ther dos­ing.

Zaf­gen cut its near-com­plete stud­ies short, rolling out pos­i­tive da­ta on weight loss and re­fo­cus­ing on rare dis­eases, but it was all for naught. Reg­u­la­tors weren’t in a for­giv­ing mood, or ready to let the de­vel­op­ment pro­gram con­tin­ue the way the biotech had pro­posed. The FDA didn’t fall­en in line with Zaf­gen’s plan to blaze a path for­ward with a new Phase III study tied to a risk mit­i­ga­tion strat­e­gy. In a call with an­a­lysts on Tues­day evening, CEO Tom Hugh­es said that while the agency ap­peared re­cep­tive to its risk mit­i­ga­tion strat­e­gy, reg­u­la­tors de­mand­ed more time for dis­cus­sion and looked for a longer Phase III that would “great­ly ex­tend” the time­line and cost need­ed to be­gin com­mer­cial­iza­tion work.

As is of­ten the case with Zaf­gen, ex­ecs spun the news hard, with Hugh­es dogged­ly in­sist­ing on the pos­i­tive as­pects of start­ing with a clean slate and a new drug. But Zaf­gen is mov­ing from a piv­otal stage back to a pre­clin­i­cal drug that has yet to be test­ed in hu­mans. Hugh­es in­sist­ed that 1061, which has on­ly been test­ed in an­i­mals, is sig­nif­i­cant­ly de-risked, a po­si­tion few ex­pe­ri­enced drug de­vel­op­ers would con­sid­er plau­si­ble, giv­en the ex­tra­or­di­nar­i­ly high rate of fail­ure for all pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams, let alone the spe­cial de­mands placed on any obe­si­ty drug.

Zaf­gen will still have to con­tend with an­gry in­vestors who watched the share price for the biotech plunge last year as com­pa­ny ex­ec­u­tives re­fused for sev­er­al days to say just why they had can­celled a planned road show. On­ly af­ter a pro­longed pause did the com­pa­ny re­veal that first death, still try­ing to de­ter­mine whether he was in the drug arm or the place­bo group. Sahm Ad­ran­gi’s Ker­ris­dale Cap­i­tal lat­er mount­ed a short at­tack on the wound­ed com­pa­ny, say­ing that be­lo­ranib had ze­ro chance of ever get­ting an ap­proval and was worth noth­ing more than what the com­pa­ny had in the bank, which they would prob­a­bly squan­der any­way.

An­a­lysts were left to sort through the wreck­age Wednes­day morn­ing. RBC’s Simos Sime­oni­dis de­cid­ed to dis­con­tin­ue cov­er­age of Zaf­gen and oth­er obe­si­ty-re­lat­ed biotechs — which have seen lit­tle that could be con­sid­ered pos­i­tive news in some time — and some oth­er skep­tics ad­just­ed their fore­casts for Zaf­gen’s shares to match the amount of cash the com­pa­ny still has in hand.

CEO Tom Hugh­es’ state­ment:

“Giv­en the height­ened com­plex­i­ty and fu­ture cost of be­lo­ranib de­vel­op­ment, bal­anced against the emerg­ing prod­uct pro­file of ZGN-1061, we be­lieve that the long-term op­por­tu­ni­ty for ZGN-1061 is more ro­bust than for be­lo­ranib. Giv­en our deep knowl­edge of this new and ex­cit­ing drug class, and our strong cash po­si­tion, we be­lieve we are well-po­si­tioned to ad­vance ZGN-1061 as a po­ten­tial new treat­ment for preva­lent obe­si­ty-re­lat­ed in­di­ca­tions.”

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

PhII Alzheimer's fail­ure deals new blow to Roche, AC Im­mune — but the tau hy­poth­e­sis is far from dead

The leading anti-tau antibody has failed its first Phase II testing, casting a shadow on a popular target (just trailing amyloid beta) for Alzheimer’s disease.

Roche and AC Immune are quick to acknowledge disappointment in the topline readout, which suggested that semorinemab did not reduce cognitive decline among patients with early Alzheimer’s disease, who are either just starting to have symptoms or have mild manifestations.

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FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn at the White House (AP Images)

Un­der fire, FDA to is­sue stricter guid­ance for Covid-19 vac­cine EUA this week — re­port

The FDA has been insisting for months that a Covid-19 vaccine had to be at least 50% effective – a measure of transparency meant to shore public trust in the agency and in a vaccine that had been brought forward at record speed and record political pressure. But now, with concerns of a Trump-driven authorization arriving before the election, the agency may be raising the bar.

The FDA is set to release new guidance that would raise safety and efficacy requirements for a vaccine EUA above earlier guidance and above the criteria used for convalescent plasma or hydroxychloroquine, The Washington Post reported. Experts say this significantly lowers the odds of an approval before the election on November 3, which Trump has promised despite vocal concerns from public health officials, and could help shore up public trust in the agency and any eventual vaccine.

Covid-19 roundup: J&J be­gins piv­otal Phase III tri­al for vac­cine; Con­tro­ver­sial hu­man chal­lenge tri­als to be­gin in Lon­don — re­port

Johnson & Johnson announced it’s beginning a pivotal Phase III trial for its Covid-19 candidate, JNJ-78436735 — the first single-dose vaccine in this stage.

The Phase III trial, dubbed ENSEMBLE, will enroll 60,000 patients worldwide, making it the largest Phase III study of a Covid-19 vaccine to date. J&J said the candidate achieved positive interim results in a Phase I/IIa study, which will be published “imminently.” There’s a possibility that the first batches will be ready for potential emergency use in early 2021, according to the biotech.

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Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House (Photo: AFP)

Trump’s HHS claims ab­solute au­thor­i­ty over the FDA, clear­ing path to a vac­cine EUA

The top career staff at the FDA has vowed not to let politics overrule science when looking at vaccine data this fall. But Alex Azar, who happens to be their boss’s boss, apparently won’t even give them a chance to stand in the way.

In a new memorandum issued Tuesday last week, the HHS chief stripped the FDA and other health agencies under his purview of their rule making ability, asserting all such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times first obtained and reported the details of the September 15 bulletin.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) (Tasos Katopodis/Pool via AP Images)

The mi­cro-cap that tapped a mask-skep­tic con­gress­man for their Covid DSMB is ap­ply­ing for an EUA. Their ev­i­dence? 21 pa­tients

NeuroRx, the tiny biotech that came under fire last week after Politico reported they selected a congressman and two other acquaintances of the CEO to supervise their Covid-19 drug trial, announced today that they will ask the FDA to authorize their drug based on the results of just 21 patients.

Such an application would test the agency’s standards of evidence for an EUA, which have already come under scrutiny after controversial authorizations for convalescent plasma and hydroxychloroquine. The only other company to announce their intention to file for an EUA, Eli Lilly, did so after results came back from a randomized control study testing their antibody in over 450 patients.

J&J re­leas­es PhI­II safe­ty blue­print for Covid-19 vac­cine tri­al. How does it stack up to Mod­er­na, Pfiz­er and As­traZeneca?

Along with the initiation of its Phase III Covid-19 vaccine study announced Wednesday morning, Johnson & Johnson also released its trial protocol, giving an inside look at how the company is conducting its late-stage research.

The move comes after the other three companies conducting Phase III’s in the US — Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca — each disclosed their own trial blueprints within the last week. Though the release of such protocols is typically done after trials have been completed, drug developers had come under intense pressure after a brief safety scare in an AstraZeneca trial and amid growing concern of a politically motivated vaccine authorization.

Vas Narasimhan (AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Still held down by clin­i­cal hold, No­var­tis' Zol­gens­ma falls fur­ther be­hind Bio­gen and Roche as FDA asks for a new piv­otal study

Last October, the FDA slowed down Novartis’ quest to extend its gene therapy to older spinal muscular atrophy patients by slapping a partial hold on intrathecal administration. Almost a year later, the hold is still there, and regulators are adding another hurdle required for regulatory submission: a new pivotal confirmatory study.

The new requirement — which departs significantly from Novartis’ prior expectations — will likely stretch the path to registration beyond 2021, when analysts were expecting a BLA submission. That could mean more time for Biogen to reap Spinraza revenues and Roche to ramp up sales of Evrysdi in the absence of a rival.

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Patrick Enright, Longitude co-founder (Longitude)

As its biotechs hit the pan­dem­ic ex­it, Lon­gi­tude rais­es $585M for new neu­ro, can­cer, ag­ing and or­phan-fo­cused fund

The years have been kind to Longitude Capital. This year, too.

A 2006 spinout of Pequot Capital, its founders started their new firm just four years before the parent company would go under amid insider trading allegations. Their first life sciences fund raised $325 million amid the financial crisis, they added a second for $385 million and then in, 2016, a third for $525 million. In the last few months, the pandemic biotech IPO boom netted several high-value exits from those funds, as Checkmate, Vaxcyte, Inozyme and Poseida all went public.

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