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.”

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Albert Bourla, AP

Covid-19 roundup: CanSi­no eyes more over­seas PhI­II sites as Cana­da tri­al re­port­ed­ly stalls; In­di­an drug­mak­er surges on 30-per­son da­ta

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Roche’s PD-L1 play­er Tecen­triq fails PhI­II for ovar­i­an can­cer

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