Mer­ck hits the brakes on de­vel­op­ment pro­gram as safe­ty fears trig­ger alarm

In a sur­prise set­back, Mer­ck has slammed the brakes on the de­vel­op­ment of an ex­per­i­men­tal HIV drug — in­clud­ing a Phase II tri­al — af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tors flagged a drop in im­mune cell counts that an ex­ter­nal com­mit­tee de­ter­mined was re­lat­ed to treat­ment.

The Phase II study that first sound­ed the alarm, dubbed IMAG­INE-DR, was test­ing the once-week­ly com­bi­na­tion of MK-8507 (a non-nu­cle­o­side re­verse tran­scrip­tase in­hibitor) and is­la­travir, or ISL, a nu­cle­o­side re­verse tran­scrip­tase translo­ca­tion in­hibitor.

Where­as Mer­ck is paus­ing all pro­grams in­volv­ing MK-8507, the com­pa­ny says it “re­mains con­fi­dent in is­la­travir’s over­all pro­file” and will car­ry on with it.

For Mizuho an­a­lyst Mara Gold­stein, that of­fers a glass half full sit­u­a­tion.

“MRK’s lead an­ti-HIV can­di­date is is­la­travir (ISL), which we see as undis­turbed at this point,” she wrote. “Based on a larg­er body of clin­i­cal da­ta for ISL’s an­ti-HIV ef­fi­ca­cy in­clud­ing the re­cent pos­i­tive top-line up­date (see NOTE), we are not fore­cast­ing changes in the broad­er ISL-based HIV stud­ies, and our mod­el re­mains the same.”

Is­la­travir is al­so one of the two cen­ter­pieces of Mer­ck and Gilead’s joint ef­fort to de­vel­op a long-act­ing HIV ther­a­py, along­side Gilead’s cap­sid in­hibitor lenaca­pavir.

Joan But­ter­ton

Joan But­ter­ton, VP of in­fec­tious dis­eases glob­al clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment at Mer­ck Re­search Lab­o­ra­to­ries, not­ed Mer­ck re­mains “res­olute” in its pledge to help end the HIV pan­dem­ic and high­light­ed that all clin­i­cal stud­ies pro­vide im­por­tant “learn­ings.”

In IMAG­INE-DR, study par­tic­i­pants ran­dom­ized to re­ceive ISL+MK-8507 saw a de­crease in to­tal lym­pho­cyte and CD4+ T cell counts. The great­est drops were ob­served in the arms of the study re­ceiv­ing the high­est dos­es of MK-8507, name­ly 200 mg and 400 mg.

The ex­ter­nal da­ta mon­i­tor­ing com­mit­tee con­clud­ed that the ad­verse ef­fect had to do with the treat­ment and rec­om­mend­ed stop­ping the tri­al. Mer­ck oblig­ed, and re­viewed all of its tri­als in­volv­ing ISL with a spe­cial eye to those met­rics.

Here’s what they found:

  • The on­go­ing Phase II tri­al (MK-8591-016) is eval­u­at­ing month­ly ISL for PrEP in par­tic­i­pants with low risk of HIV-1 in­fec­tion. Among this un­in­fect­ed group, there was a dose-de­pen­dent de­crease in lym­pho­cyte counts but mean de­creas­es were in the nor­mal range, and there was no in­crease in clin­i­cal ad­verse events re­lat­ed to in­fec­tion.
  • IL­LU­MI­NATE SWITCH A and IL­LU­MI­NATE SWITCH B (MK-8591A-017 and MK-8591A-018) are two Phase III tri­als eval­u­at­ing do­ravirine in com­bi­na­tion with ISL dai­ly (DOR/ISL) in HIV-1 vi­ro­log­i­cal­ly sup­pressed par­tic­i­pants. Here, Mer­ck found a small, treat­ment re­lat­ed mean de­crease in CD4+ T cell counts through week 48, but no in­creased in­ci­dence of AEs re­lat­ed to in­fec­tion.

Mer­ck re­cent­ly re­port­ed pos­i­tive da­ta from the IL­LU­MI­NATE stud­ies, sug­gest­ing the DOR/ISL com­bo has com­pa­ra­ble ef­fi­ca­cy as ex­ist­ing an­ti­retro­vi­ral ther­a­pies.

“In­ves­ti­ga­tors for these tri­als have been in­formed and the tri­als are con­tin­u­ing,” the com­pa­ny wrote.

At the In­flec­tion Point for the Next Gen­er­a­tion of Can­cer Im­munother­a­py

While oncology researchers have long pursued the potential of cellular immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer, it was unclear whether these therapies would ever reach patients due to the complexity of manufacturing and costs of development. Fortunately, the recent successful development and regulatory approval of chimeric antigen receptor-engineered T (CAR-T) cells have demonstrated the significant benefit of these therapies to patients.

All about Omi­cron; We need more Covid an­tivi­rals; GSK snags Pfiz­er’s vac­cine ex­ec; Janet Wood­cock’s fu­ture at FDA; and more

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Usama Malik

Ex-Im­munomedics CFO charged with in­sid­er trad­ing, faces up to 20 years in prison af­ter al­leged­ly tip­ping off girl­friend and rel­a­tives of a PhI­II suc­cess

The former CFO of Immunomedics, who helped steer the company to its $21 billion buyout by Gilead last year, has been charged with insider trading, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.

Usama Malik tipped off his then-girlfriend and four others that a Phase III study for Trodelvy would be stopped early four days before Immunomedics publicly announced the result in April 2020, DoJ alleged in its complaint. The individuals then purchased Immunomedics shares, selling them after the news broke and Immunomedics’ stock price doubled.

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Merck's new antiviral molnupiravir (Quality Stock Arts / Shutterstock)

As Omi­cron spread looms, oral an­tivi­rals ap­pear to be one of the best de­fens­es — now we just need more

After South African scientists reported a new Covid-19 variant — dubbed Omicron by the WHO — scientists became concerned about how effective vaccines and monoclonal antibodies might be against it, which has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein.

“I think it is super worrisome,” Dartmouth professor and Adagio co-founder and CEO Tillman Gerngross told Endpoints News this weekend. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel echoed similar concerns, telling the Financial Times that experts warned him, “This is not going to be good.”

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Pfiz­er, Am­gen and Janssen seek fur­ther clar­i­ty on FDA's new ben­e­fit-risk guid­ance

Three top biopharma companies are seeking more details from the FDA on how the agency conducts its benefit-risk assessments for new drugs and biologics.

While Pfizer, Amgen and Janssen praised the agency for further spelling out its thinking on the subject in a new draft guidance, including a discussion of patient experience data as part of the assessment, the companies said the FDA could’ve included more specifics in the 20-page draft document.

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Vas Narasimhan, Novartis CEO (Thibault Camus/Pool via AP Images)

With gener­ic com­pe­ti­tion heat­ing up, Vas Narasimhan out­lines No­var­tis' growth plans at R&D day

Thursday marks Novartis’ annual R&D day, and with it comes CEO Vas Narasimhan’s attempt to spotlight the company’s pipeline strategy and emerging stars.

The biggest question entering Thursday’s presentation dealt with how the big biopharma will make up revenues from upcoming generic competition — Novartis says within the next five years, generics will eat away roughly $9 billion in sales. To offset this, Narasimhan outlined a strategy for 4% growth or higher until 2026, focusing on six key medicines he believes will see multibillion dollar profits during this time.

In­cor­po­rat­ing Ex­ter­nal Da­ta in­to Clin­i­cal Tri­als: Com­par­ing Dig­i­tal Twins to Ex­ter­nal Con­trol Arms

Most drug development professionals are familiar with the nerve-racking wait for the read-out of a large trial. If it’s negative, is the investigational therapy ineffective? Or could the failure result from an unforeseen flaw in the design or execution of the protocol, rather than a lack of efficacy? The team could spend weeks analyzing data, but a definitive answer may be elusive due to insufficient power for such analyses in the already completed trial. These problems are only made worse if the trial had lower enrollment, or higher dropout than expected due to an unanticipated event like COVID-19. And if a trial is negative, the next one is likely to be larger and more costly — if it happens at all.

Reshma Kewalramani, Vertex CEO (Vertex via YouTube)

Bat­tling a line­up of skep­tics, Ver­tex claims an­oth­er ear­ly clin­i­cal win — this time in kid­ney dis­ease

Vertex claimed its second early-stage win of the fall Wednesday, announcing positive results in a small study on a genetically defined form of kidney disease.

The 16-patient, Phase II trial focused on patients with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a rare disease where kidneys are unable to filter blood properly. Over 13 weeks on an experimental pill, the level of protein in the patients’ urine fell by an average of 47.6%.

Ab­b­Vie tacks on a new warn­ing to Rin­voq la­bel as safe­ty frets crimp JAK class

The safety problems that continue to plague the JAK class as new data highlight some severe side effects are casting a large shadow over AbbVie’s Rinvoq.

As a result of a recent readout highlighting major adverse cardiac events (MACE), malignancy, mortality and thrombosis with Xeljanz a couple of months ago, AbbVie put out a notice late Friday afternoon that it is adding the new class risks to its label for their rival drug.

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