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.

Tillman Gerngross, Adagio Therapeutics CEO

An­ti­body leg­end Till­man Gern­gross is el­bow­ing his way in­to the Covid-19 R&D cru­sade: 'I don’t see this end­ing any­time soon'

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Dartmouth professor and Adimab CEO Tillman Gerngross tells me he’s raised $50 million from a group of close VCs to spin out a new company — Adagio Therapeutics — with a full C-suite team assembled to hire up a staff and keep rolling toward the clinic.

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Tal Zaks, Moderna CMO (Moderna via YouTube)

UP­DAT­ED: NI­AID and Mod­er­na spell out a 'ro­bust' im­mune re­sponse in PhI coro­n­avirus vac­cine test — but big ques­tions re­main to be an­swered

The NIAID and Moderna have spelled out positive Phase I safety and efficacy data for their Covid-19 vaccine mRNA-1273 — highlighting the first full, clear sketch of evidence that back-to-back jabs at the dose selected for Phase III routinely produced a swarm of antibodies to the virus that exceeded levels seen in convalescent patients — typically in multiples indicating a protective response.

Moderna execs say plainly that this first stage of research produced exactly the kind of efficacy they hoped to see in humans, with a manageable safety profile.

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It’s a question that echoes beyond our current times. In the biopharma world, not only are women under-represented in R&D roles (particularly at higher levels), their achievements and talents could also be undermined by stereotypes and norms of leadership styles. The problem is even more dire for women of color.

Trans­port Sim­u­la­tion Test­ing for Your Ther­a­py is the Best Way to As­sure FDA Ex­pe­dit­ed Pro­gram Ap­proval

Modality Solutions is an ISO:9001-registered biopharmaceutical cold chain engineering firm with unique transport simulation capabilities that support accelerated regulatory approval for biologics and advanced therapeutic medicinal products (ATMP). Our expertise combines traditional validation engineering approaches with regulatory knowledge into a methodology tailored for the life sciences industry. We provide insight and execution for the challenges faced in your cold chain logistics network.

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Covid-19 roundup: Fau­ci fires back at White House cam­paign to un­der­mine him

Anthony Fauci has called the White House campaign to discredit him “a bit bizarre” and said he stands by his previous statements, even if he has since changed his views.

The NIAID chief — who has received an outpouring of support following reports that the Trump administration has sent a document akin to opposition research to multiple news outlets — spoke with his usual candor in interviews with The Atlantic.

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John Furey, Imvax CEO

A neu­ro­sur­geon spent the past 30 years de­vel­op­ing a neoanti­gen tu­mor vac­cine. Now he has $112M for a piv­otal test

As a neurosurgeon, David Andrews knew there wasn’t much he could do for his glioma patients after resecting — rarely fully — their tumor. Even with the best treatment and care available, median overall survival is just somewhere between 14 and 16 months.

Then in the 1990s, his mentor at Thomas Jefferson University introduced him to Renato Baserga, a pathologist who had been studying the effect of using antisense oligonucleotide to knock out the insulin-like growth factor type 1 receptor in cancers. As IGF-R1 drives tumor growth and metastasis, the preclinical reasoning went, implanting a molecule targeting the receptor together with the tumor material near lymph nodes can slow down the spread of the cancer.

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New biotech Exalys, seek­ing to pre­vent post­op­er­a­tive delir­i­um, launch­es with $15 mil­lion in Se­ries A

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Led by Rick Orr, who ran biotechs Adynxx and Alliqua Biomedical, the group is launching the startup Exalys on Thursday with $15 million in Series A funding from venture firms Catalys Pacific and Domain Associates. The nascent company’s first project will focus on preventing postoperative delirium, licensing a platform of EP4 receptors from Japanese pharma Eisai.

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AstraZeneca and Moderna represent the two most ambitious Covid-19 vaccine efforts, having set the quickest timelines for approval (though they were recently joined in that regard by the Pfizer-BioNTech partnership) and some of the loftiest goals in total doses. Yet there is even less known about AstraZeneca’s vaccine’s effect on humans than there was about Moderna’s before yesterday. Although, in a controversial move, Moderna released some statistics from its Phase I in May, AstraZeneca has yet to say anything about what it saw in its Phase I trial — a move consistent with the scientific convention to withhold data until it can be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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