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.”

Novotech CEO Dr. John Moller

Novotech CRO Award­ed Frost & Sul­li­van Best Biotech CRO Asia-Pa­cif­ic 2019

Known in the in­dus­try as the Asia-Pa­cif­ic CRO, Novotech is now lead CRO ser­vices provider for the grow­ing num­ber of in­ter­na­tion­al biotechs se­lect­ing the re­gion for their stud­ies.

Re­flect­ing this Asia-Pa­cif­ic growth, Novotech staff num­bers are up 20% since De­cem­ber 2018 to 600 in-house clin­i­cal re­search peo­ple across a full range of ser­vices, across the re­gion.

Novotech’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties have been rec­og­nized by an­a­lysts like Frost & Sul­li­van, most re­cent­ly with the pres­ti­gious Asia-Pa­cif­ic CRO Biotech of the year award for best prac­tices in clin­i­cal re­search for biotechs for the fifth year. See oth­er awards here.

Bet­ter than Am­bi­en? Min­er­va soars on PhI­Ib up­date on sel­torex­ant for in­som­nia

A month af­ter roil­ing in­vestors with what skep­tics dis­missed as cher­ry pick­ing of its de­pres­sion da­ta, Min­er­va is back with a clean slate of da­ta from its Phase IIb in­som­nia tri­al.

In a de­tailed up­date, the Waltham, MA-based biotech said sel­torex­ant (MIN-202) hit both the pri­ma­ry and sev­er­al sec­ondary end­points, ef­fec­tive­ly im­prov­ing sleep in­duc­tion and pro­long­ing sleep du­ra­tion. In­ves­ti­ga­tors made a point to note that the ef­fects were con­sis­tent across the adult and el­der­ly pop­u­la­tions, with the lat­ter more prone to the sleep dis­or­der.

Gene ther­a­py biotech sees its stock rock­et high­er on promis­ing re­sults for rare cas­es of but­ter­fly dis­ease

Shares of Krys­tal Biotech took off this morn­ing $KRYS af­ter the lit­tle biotech re­port­ed promis­ing re­sults from its gene ther­a­py to treat a rare skin dis­ease called epi­der­mol­y­sis bul­losa.

Fo­cus­ing on an up­date with 4 new pa­tients, re­searchers spot­light­ed the suc­cess of KB103 in clos­ing some stub­born wounds. Krys­tal says that of 4 re­cur­ring and 2 chron­ic skin wounds treat­ed with the gene ther­a­py, the KB103 group saw the clo­sure of 5. The 6th — a chron­ic wound, de­fined as a wound that had re­mained open for more than 12 weeks — was par­tial­ly closed. That brings the to­tal so far to 8 treat­ed wounds, with 7 clo­sures.

Alex­ion wins pri­or­i­ty re­view for Ul­tomiris' aHUS in­di­ca­tion; FDA ex­pands ap­proval of Ver­tex's Symdeko

→ Alex­ion $ALXN has scored a speedy re­view for Ul­tomiris for pa­tients with atyp­i­cal he­molyt­ic ure­mic syn­drome (aHUS) af­ter post­ing pos­i­tive da­ta from a piv­otal study in Jan­u­ary. The drug is the rare dis­ease com­pa­ny’s shot at pro­tect­ing its block­buster blood dis­or­der fran­chise that is cur­rent­ly cen­tered around its flag­ship drug, Soliris, which is a com­ple­ment in­hibitor typ­i­cal­ly ad­min­is­tered every two weeks. Ul­tomiris has a sim­i­lar mech­a­nism of ac­tion but re­quires less-fre­quent dos­ing — every eight weeks. The de­ci­sion date has been set to Oc­to­ber 19. Late last year, Ul­tomiris se­cured ap­proval for noc­tur­nal he­mo­glo­bin­uria (PNH) pa­tients.

Ab­b­Vie gets a green light to re­sume re­cruit­ing pa­tients for one myelo­ma study — but Ven­clex­ta re­mains un­der a cloud

Three months af­ter reg­u­la­tors at the FDA forced Ab­b­Vie to halt en­rolling pa­tients in its tri­als of a com­bi­na­tion us­ing Ven­clex­ta (vene­to­clax) to treat drug-re­sis­tant cas­es of mul­ti­ple myelo­ma, the agency has green-light­ed the re­sump­tion of one of those stud­ies, while keep­ing the rest on the side­lines.

The CANO­VA (M13-494) study can now get back in busi­ness re­cruit­ing pa­tients to test the drug for a pop­u­la­tion that shares a par­tic­u­lar ge­net­ic bio­mark­er. To get that per­mis­sion, Ab­b­Vie — which is part­nered with Roche on this pro­gram — was forced to re­vise the pro­to­col, mak­ing un­spec­i­fied changes in­volv­ing risk mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures, pro­to­col-spec­i­fied guide­lines and an up­dat­ed fu­til­i­ty cri­te­ria.

UP­DAT­ED: In sur­prise switch, Bris­tol-My­ers is sell­ing off block­buster Ote­zla, promis­ing to com­plete Cel­gene ac­qui­si­tion — just lat­er

Apart from revealing its checkpoint inhibitor Opdivo blew a big liver cancer study on Monday, Bristol-Myers Squibb said its plans to swallow Celgene will require the sale of blockbuster psoriasis treatment Otezla to keep the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at bay.

The announcement — which has potentially delayed the completion of the takeover to early 2020 — irked investors, triggering the New York-based drugmaker’s shares to tumble Monday morning in premarket trading.

Celgene’s Otezla, approved in 2014 for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis, is a rising star. It generated global sales of $1.6 billion last year, up from the nearly $1.3 billion in 2017. Apart from the partial overlap of Bristol-Myers injectable Orencia, the company’s rival oral TYK2 psoriasis drug is in late-stage development, after the firm posted encouraging mid-stage data on the drug, BMS-986165, last fall. With Monday’s decision, it appears Bristol-Myers is favoring its experimental drug, and discounting Otezla’s future.

The move blindsided some analysts. Credit Suisse’s Vamil Divan noted just days ago:

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Bris­tol-My­ers star Op­di­vo fails sur­vival test in a matchup with Nex­avar aimed at shak­ing up the big HCC mar­ket

Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb has suf­fered an­oth­er painful set­back in its years-long quest to ex­pand the reach of Op­di­vo. The phar­ma gi­ant this morn­ing not­ed that their Check­mate-459 study com­par­ing Op­di­vo with Bay­er’s Nex­avar in front­line cas­es of he­pa­to­cel­lu­lar car­ci­no­ma — the most com­mon form of liv­er can­cer — failed to hit the pri­ma­ry end­point on over­all sur­vival.

This was a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone in Bris­tol-My­ers’ tal­ly of PD-1 cat­a­lysts this year. Nex­avar (so­rafenib) has been the stan­dard of care in front­line HCC for the past decade, though Op­di­vo has been mak­ing head­way in sec­ond-line HCC cas­es, where it’s go­ing toe-to-toe with Bay­er’s Sti­var­ga (re­go­rafenib) af­ter re­cent ap­provals shook up the mar­ket.

Fol­low­ing news of job cuts in Eu­ro­pean R&D ops, Sanofi con­firms it’s of­fer­ing US work­ers an 'ear­ly ex­it'

Ear­li­er in the week we learned that Sanofi was bring­ing out the bud­get ax to trim 466 R&D jobs in Eu­rope, re­tool­ing its ap­proach to car­dio as re­search chief John Reed beefed up their work in can­cer and gene ther­a­pies. And we’re end­ing the week with news that the phar­ma gi­ant has al­so been qui­et­ly re­duc­ing staff in the US, tar­get­ing hun­dreds of jobs as the com­pa­ny push­es vol­un­tary buy­outs with a fo­cus on R&D sup­port ser­vices.

Why would the FDA ap­prove an­oth­er con­tro­ver­sial drug to spur a woman’s li­bido with these da­ta? And why no ex­pert pan­el re­view?

AMAG Pharmaceuticals’ newly approved drug for spurring women’s sexual desire may never make much money, but it’s a big hit at sparking media attention.

The therapy — Vyleesi (bremelanotide) — got the green light from regulators on Friday evening, swiftly lighting up a range of stories around the world, from The New York Times to The Guardian. Several headlines inevitably referred to it as the “female Viagra,” invoking Pfizer’s old erectile dysfunction blockbuster.

But the two drugs have little in common.

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