Lit­tle Cona­tus' No­var­tis-part­nered liv­er drug suf­fers third straight de­feat, but CEO Men­to is still hold­ing out hope

Lit­tle Cona­tus’ No­var­tis-part­nered liv­er drug is one step clos­er to the scrap heap, with its third mid-stage fail­ure.

The Swiss drug­mak­er hand­ed the San Diego-based biotech $50 mil­lion up­front and an in­jec­tion of con­fi­dence in late 2016 to li­cense the drug, em­ri­c­as­an. Since then, it has flopped in a tri­fec­ta of stud­ies. An­oth­er Phase II study is ex­pect­ed to read­out lat­er this year.

Steven Men­to

The 318-pa­tient tri­al, dubbed EN­CORE-NF, was test­ing two dos­es (5 mg, 50 mg) of the drug against a place­bo in biop­sy-con­firmed NASH and liv­er fi­bro­sis pa­tients. Em­ri­c­as­an missed the pri­ma­ry end­point of im­prov­ing fi­bro­sis by ≥1 on the val­i­dat­ed Clin­i­cal Re­search Net­work (CRN) stage sys­tem, with no wors­en­ing of steato­hep­ati­tis com­pared to place­bo at week 72, the com­pa­ny said late Thurs­day.

In a sep­a­rate fil­ing, Cona­tus pro­vid­ed a lit­tle more tri­al de­tail. The re­sponse rates in the 5 mg em­ri­c­as­an, 50 mg em­ri­c­as­an and place­bo treat­ment groups were 11.2%, 12.3% and 19.0%, re­spec­tive­ly. Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tions were ob­served in ALT (el­e­vat­ed lev­els of this en­zyme in­di­cates a liv­er in dis­tress) and Cas­pase 3/7 (en­zymes that play es­sen­tial roles in pro­grammed cell death) in the 5 mg and 50 mg em­ri­c­as­an treat­ment groups.

The com­pa­ny’s shares $CNAT more than halved pre-mar­ket on Fri­day to $1.43.

Akin to the pre­vi­ous fail­ures, Cona­tus’ CEO played it cool, sug­gest­ing the drug could still work in pa­tients with NASH, which is typ­i­cal­ly as­so­ci­at­ed with obe­si­ty and di­a­betes and is set to eclipse he­pati­tis C as the lead­ing rea­son for liv­er trans­plants by 2020.

“Al­though em­ri­c­as­an did not have the de­sired ef­fect in these ear­li­er-stage NASH fi­bro­sis pa­tients, we be­lieve its demon­strat­ed bio­mark­er ac­tiv­i­ty across a broad spec­trum of liv­er dis­ease war­rants con­tin­ued eval­u­a­tion in more ad­vanced-stage NASH cir­rho­sis pa­tients,” chief Steven Men­to said in a state­ment, adding that the com­pa­ny would await ad­di­tion­al da­ta read­outs lat­er this year be­fore de­ter­min­ing the next steps for the em­ri­c­as­an pro­gram with No­var­tis.

Stifel’s Stephen Wil­ley did not buy what Cona­tus was sell­ing. “The fail­ure…fur­ther lim­its our abil­i­ty to gen­er­ate any lin­ger­ing en­thu­si­asm for re­main­ing full year 2019 mile­stones.”

“The lim­it­ed ef­fi­ca­cy de­tails pro­vid­ed by man­age­ment ac­tu­al­ly sug­gest­ed a di­rec­tion­al detri­ment in em­ri­c­as­an-treat­ed pa­tients…the lack of any clin­i­cal con­se­quences as­so­ci­at­ed with these ben­e­fits is con­sis­tent with every oth­er em­ri­c­as­an study re­port­ed to date.”

Last April, em­ri­c­as­an failed its first Phase II tri­al, in­volv­ing liv­er trans­plant pa­tients with fi­bro­sis or cir­rho­sis. In De­cem­ber, the drug failed to im­press in a sec­ond study (dubbed EN­CORE-PH), in­volv­ing NASH cir­rho­sis pa­tients — whose liv­ers were cop­ing with the dam­age and still able to per­form im­por­tant func­tions, but were at high risk for de­com­pen­sa­tion.

Wil­ley pre­dict­ed the Phase IIb EN­CORE-LF tri­al, slat­ed for read­out in mid-2019 and in­volv­ing de­com­pen­sat­ed NASH pa­tients, is al­so doomed to fail, giv­en that the 5/25mg em­ri­c­as­an dos­es giv­en in EN­CORE-PH ac­tu­al­ly re­sult­ed in wors­en­ing of symp­toms in pa­tients with base­line de­com­pen­sat­ed cir­rho­sis.

“(T)he on­ly em­ri­c­as­an dose with­in EN­CORE-PH to sug­gest an in­cre­men­tal ben­e­fit in de­com­pen­sat­ed pa­tients was the 50mg dose – which isn’t even be­ing eval­u­at­ed in EN­CORE-LF. We al­so be­lieve EN­CORE-LF-el­i­gi­ble pa­tients rep­re­sent a very dif­fi­cult-to-treat pop­u­la­tion of pa­tients in whom the na­ture and rate of events are of­ten both dif­fi­cult to pre­dict and un­cor­re­lat­ed to sup­port­ive care ther­a­py – mak­ing the achieve­ment of a sta­tis­ti­cal win in this set­ting an even more-chal­leng­ing en­deav­or.”

NASH — char­ac­ter­ized by a buildup of ex­cess fat in the liv­er that in­duces chron­ic in­flam­ma­tion and even­tu­al­ly cul­mi­nates in scar­ring that can lead to cir­rho­sis, liv­er fail­ure, can­cer and death — is a high risk-re­ward dis­ease that has at­tract­ed a pletho­ra of drug­mak­ers big and small, and re­searchers ex­pect it will take a cock­tail of new drugs to tru­ly de­feat the dis­ease.

In­ter­cept $ICPT in Feb­ru­ary re­port­ed that a piv­otal late-stage study test­ing its OCA treat­ment hit a high­ly sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant score on an im­prove­ment in liv­er fi­bro­sis with­out any wors­en­ing of NASH, but missed the end­point for NASH res­o­lu­tion with­out wors­en­ing of fi­bro­sis. Gilead $GILD, mean­while, ex­pe­ri­enced a ma­jor set­back af­ter its NASH drug selon­sert­ib failed its Phase III. France’s Gen­fit is ex­pect­ed to of­fer its key NASH read­out lat­er this year.

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