How do you re­place a rock star like Scott Got­tlieb at the FDA? Maybe you can't

Any­one look­ing for a con­ve­nient weath­er vane to de­ter­mine the re­ac­tion to Scott Got­tlieb’s abrupt de­par­ture from the FDA need go no fur­ther than the $XBI. The S&P Biotech ETF took a 4% hit. And it was down an­oth­er 1.8% ahead of the bell on Thurs­day.


The mar­ket and the in­dus­try loved Got­tlieb, as we un­der­scored on sev­er­al oc­ca­sions with in­dus­try sur­veys high­light­ing the in­tense en­thu­si­asm for some­one who ad­vo­cat­ed for col­lab­o­rat­ing with the drug in­dus­try. Bio­phar­ma had a part­ner in Got­tlieb, and they all knew it.

Va­p­ing and the opi­oid epi­dem­ic — while big pub­lic pol­i­cy is­sues — meant ab­solute­ly noth­ing to the in­dus­try. An agency com­mit­ted to push­ing ap­provals while em­brac­ing in­no­va­tion at a time some land­mark ther­a­pies are be­ing ap­proved at a more rapid pace: That was pure gold. And it wasn’t just lip ser­vice. In this brave new world J&J could slip around the gold stan­dard on de­pres­sion drug da­ta and score an OK this week for es­ke­t­a­mine, a drug they plan to make a block­buster. A few years ago, that like­ly wouldn’t have hap­pened.

The one thing that could set­tle in­vestors and ex­ecs back down would be a new head of the FDA that could walk the line be­tween main­tain­ing the some­what weak­ened gold stan­dard on piv­otal da­ta and a free-for-all that would clear­ly aban­don a com­mit­ment to ap­prov­ing safe and ef­fec­tive drugs that met the risk/ben­e­fit analy­sis. 

Got­tlieb emerged ear­ly as a fa­vorite for the FDA job. He had ex­pe­ri­ence at the agency, he fit in­to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s orb with vows to speed things up, and an amaz­ing num­ber of in­dus­try in­sid­ers knew him and liked him.

He quick­ly be­came a rock star in bio­phar­ma, tweet­ing his way through every day about pol­i­cy.

So how do you re­place him and main­tain the same lev­el of en­thu­si­asm in bio­phar­ma? The usu­al sus­pects don’t cut it. 

We’re not even sure right now who will be the in­ter­im chief. Stephen Os­troff has tak­en the helm on a strict­ly in­ter­im ba­sis be­fore, but he re­tired last fall. Amy Aber­nethy was named prin­ci­pal deputy com­mis­sion­er just 2 months ago, com­ing to the FDA from a se­nior sci­en­tif­ic po­si­tion at Flat­iron af­ter a stint at Duke. She’s been tapped as the like­ly in­ter­im chief, and will def­i­nite­ly make the ru­mor mill as pos­si­bly the next head of the FDA. But she’s still large­ly an un­known in the in­dus­try, so don’t ex­pect much en­thu­si­asm right off the bat.

On the oth­er hand, if she gets the in­ter­im job, she’ll have a chance to shine. And Pres­i­dent Trump doesn’t seem pressed to get big jobs filled fast in Wash­ing­ton DC, so the in­ter­im role could last awhile. 

Na­tion­al Can­cer In­sti­tutes di­rec­tor Ned Sharp­less has emerged as one of the most fre­quent­ly cit­ed can­di­dates for the FDA job, with an ear­ly push from the Wall Street Jour­nal, which al­so quick­ly named Brett Giroir, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary at HHS, as an­oth­er pos­si­ble suc­ces­sor.

Jim O’Neill ev­i­dent­ly had a shot at the job a cou­ple of years ago, but the in­dus­try was shocked by the fact that Pe­ter Thiel’s can­di­date was even in the run­ning. He’s been as­so­ci­at­ed with some loony en­deav­ors, like seast­eading and the hunt for im­mor­tal­i­ty, and the in­dus­try sees him as a dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen. In this en­vi­ron­ment, that makes O’Neill a cred­i­ble threat again, though it seems far fetched.

But he’s still go­ing to make every­one’s list. Fun­ny how that works.

Richard Paz­dur

How about Richard Paz­dur, the on­col­o­gy czar at the FDA whose com­mit­ment to rapid drug re­views has played a ma­te­r­i­al role in rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing on­col­o­gy R&D over the last 5 years? It’s been sug­gest­ed. But when it comes to agency in­sid­ers, though, no one out­shines Janet Wood­cock at CDER. She not on­ly knows where the bod­ies are buried at the FDA, she of­ten helped put them there. Maybe she could cap a decades-long run as FDA chief? 

Janet Wood­cock

Stranger things have hap­pened.

Two years ago I called Got­tlieb the Re­pub­li­can shad­ow com­mis­sion­er, out front of­fer­ing po­si­tions on re­form­ing the FDA. We don’t seem to have one of those now, by virtue of the fact that no one ex­pect­ed Got­tlieb to stand down so soon. And with a na­tion­al elec­tion loom­ing next year with a wild­ly con­tro­ver­sial pres­i­dent, any­one who does get the job may ul­ti­mate­ly prove an in­ter­im chief in any case.

Bio­phar­ma hates reg­u­la­to­ry un­cer­tain­ty of any kind. This year we’ve had a gov­ern­ment shut­down fol­lowed by an abrupt res­ig­na­tion by Got­tlieb. Un­cer­tain­ty at the FDA ap­pears to now be the rule. 

In a note to in­vestors, Jef­feries’ Michael Yee not­ed that who­ev­er steps in will find an agency that has es­tab­lished a “pro-in­no­va­tion” ap­proach that won’t sud­den­ly end now, re­gard­less of who gets the job.

That sounds rea­son­able, but it won’t stop the fret­ting that’s go­ing on now. Ap­proach­es are one thing, ex­e­cu­tion is an­oth­er.

UP­DAT­ED: Roche bags 'break­through' an­ti-fi­bro­sis drug in $1.4B biotech buy­out deal

Roche is snapping up a “breakthrough” anti-fibrotic drug in a $1.4 billion buyout.

The pharma giant announced Friday that it is acquiring Promedior, primarily to get its hands on PRM-151, a recombinant form of human pentraxin-2 (PTX-2) protein that has nailed down mid-stage clinical data on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and demonstrating its potential for a range of fibrotic conditions.

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Amarin emerges from an ex­pert pan­el re­view with a clear en­dorse­ment for Vas­cepa and high odds of suc­cess when the FDA weighs in for­mal­ly

Several FDA experts who gathered Thursday to consider the landmark approval of Vascepa to reduce cardio events in an at-risk population voiced their unease about various aspects of the efficacy and safety data, or ultimately the population it should be used to treat. But the overwhelming belief that the data pointed to the drug’s benefit and clearly outweighed risks carried the day for Amarin.

The panel voted unanimously (16 to 0) to support the company’s positive data presentation — backing an OK for expanding the label to include reducing cardio risk. The vote points Amarin $AMRN down a short path to a formal decision by the FDA, with the odds heavily in its favor. Chances are the rest of the questions about the future of this drug will be hashed out in the label’s small print.

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Federal Trade Commission commissioner Rohit Chopra testifies on Capitol Hill (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

FTC clears Bris­tol-My­ers’ $74B deal to buy Cel­gene — but Dems sig­nal a po­ten­tial hard shift against Big Phar­ma M&A

Bristol-Myers Squibb’s record $74 billion takeover of Celgene is a done deal. And it will all be over — except for the lingering complaints from die-hard Celgene investors — on Wednesday.

Like much else that’s going on in Washington these days, the vote among the 5 FTC commissioners split along party lines, with the 3 Republicans voting to clear the way and the 2 Democrats steamed over what they see as a major M&A move that will lessen competition and innovation. And that split has big implications for the M&A side of the business if the Dems take the White House in 2020.

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No­var­tis spin­out’s first an­ti-ag­ing PhI­II is a flop, so now they’ll turn to Parkin­son’s chal­lenge as shares wilt

Novartis spinout resTORbio is grappling with the collapse of its lead clinical program this morning — an anti-aging R&D failure that will badly damage their rep in the field.

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BeiGene CEO John Oyler at an Endpoints event in Shanghai, October 2018 (Credit: Endpoints News/PharmCube)

UP­DAT­ED: In a first, FDA green-lights use of a Chi­nese built can­cer ther­a­py — and more are com­ing

Weeks after Amgen took a $2.7 billion stake in BeiGene, the Beijing-based biotech has secured its first-ever FDA approval for zanubrutinib, a BTK inhibitor, months ahead of schedule.

BeiGene’s drug, branded as Brukinsa, has secured accelerated approval for adult patients with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) — a typically aggressive, rare, form of blood cancer — who have received at least one prior therapy.

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What does $62B buy you these days? A lot, says Take­da ex­ecs as the phar­ma play­er promis­es a block­buster R&D fu­ture

First comes the $62 billion buyout. Then comes the asset auction and reorganization to pay down debt. Now comes the detailed pledge of a bigger, brighter future in drug development.

That’s where Takeda finds itself on R&D day today, about 11 months after closing on their Shire acquisition. R&D chief Andy Plump is joining CEO Christophe Weber and other top members of the team to outline a new set of priorities in the greatly expanded pipeline at Takeda, which has jumped into the top ranks of the world’s pharma giants in the wake of the Shire deal.

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GSK's asth­ma bi­o­log­ic Nu­cala scores in rare blood dis­or­der study

GlaxoSmithKline’s asthma drug Nucala, which received a resounding FDA rejection for use in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) last year, has shown promise in a rare blood disorder.

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Mer­ck buys a fledg­ling neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive biotech spawned by an old GSK dis­cov­ery al­liance. What’s up with that?

Avalon Ventures chief Jay Lichter has a well-known yen for drug development programs picked up in academia. And what he found in Haoxing Xu’s lab at the University of Michigan pricked his interest enough to launch one of his umbrella biotechs in San Diego.

Xu’s work laid the foundation for Avalon to launch Calporta, which has been working on finding small molecule agonists of TRPML1 (transient receptor potential cation channel, mucolipin subfamily, member 1) for lysosomal storage disorders. And that pathway, they believe, points to new approaches on major market neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, ALS and Alzheimer’s.

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No­var­tis scores its lat­est FDA OK — this time for a new sick­le cell dis­ease drug picked up in a $665M deal

Novartis’ decision to buy Oklahoma-based biotech Selexys 3 years ago for up to $665 million has paid off with an FDA approval today.

Blessed with the FDA’s breakthrough drug designation for a speedy review, the pharma giant has pinned down an approval for crizanlizumab, a new therapy designed to reduce the frequency of painful incidents of vaso-occlusive crises among sickle cell disease patients 16 or older.

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