Mer­ck study may sig­nal doom for a broad group of piv­otal Alzheimer’s stud­ies

The BACE the­o­ry in Alzheimer’s R&D is sim­ple. Cut off the flow of amy­loid be­ta to the brain and you can elim­i­nate what is wide­ly be­lieved — though not proven — to be a cause of the dis­ease. Do that, and you could bend the course of this dev­as­tat­ing ill­ness in mil­lions of peo­ple with mild to mod­er­ate forms of the dis­ease.

And Mer­ck $MRK just spent a for­tune to demon­strate that it may well be com­plete­ly wrong.

To be sure, Mer­ck ran a clean study for verube­ce­s­tat, the lead­ing BACE drug in the clin­ic, and dis­played the da­ta on 1,958 pa­tients for all to see to­day in the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Med­i­cine. In­ves­ti­ga­tors care­ful­ly tracked amy­loid be­ta flows in cere­brospinal cords and found that the drug did what it was in­tend­ed to do, with a dra­mat­ic re­duc­tion of the tox­ic pro­tein. 

It had no ef­fect, with pa­tients in the two dosage groups track­ing in par­al­lel de­cline on both cog­ni­tion and func­tion, the two clas­sic mea­sures for Alzheimer’s. 

The con­clu­sion they reached is that the dam­age al­ready present in the brains of pa­tients with Alzheimer’s may be too ex­ten­sive to treat with any BACE drug. And they al­so con­cede that the amy­loid the­o­ry it­self may be just flat wrong.

This sug­gests that once de­men­tia is present, dis­ease pro­gres­sion may be in­de­pen­dent of Aβ pro­duc­tion or, al­ter­na­tive­ly, that the amy­loid hy­poth­e­sis of Alzheimer’s dis­ease may not be cor­rect. Be­cause Aβ de­po­si­tion takes place years be­fore clin­i­cal symp­toms be­come ap­par­ent, it has been pro­posed that treat­ments tar­get­ing amy­loid should be im­ple­ment­ed ear­ly in the dis­ease process, be­fore the on­set of clin­i­cal symp­toms.

Soon af­ter this study failed, Mer­ck al­so threw in the tow­el on their sec­ond piv­otal tri­al, not­ing it too was a flop. Those da­ta are still be­ing eval­u­at­ed, but it un­der­scores the be­lief that all of the BACE stud­ies — in­clud­ing those at Eli Lil­ly $LLY, part­nered with As­traZeneca $AZN, or Bio­gen $BI­IB, al­lied with Ei­sai — are head­ed straight to fail­ure.

Bio­gen is al­so rolling the dice on ad­u­canum­ab, which the com­pa­ny has tout­ed as a lead­ing amy­loid be­ta ther­a­py. But with in­ves­ti­ga­tors in the field open­ly won­der­ing whether the amy­loid the­o­ry has lured a long line­up in­to a clin­i­cal dis­as­ter zone, it’s like­ly to face grow­ing skep­ti­cism that it can de­vel­op a safe, ef­fec­tive ther­a­py with just one drug.

This doesn’t by any means elim­i­nate work in the area. True, Pfiz­er re­cent­ly pulled out af­ter spend­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars on their pro­grams. But star­tups like De­nali be­lieve that new and bet­ter tech­nol­o­gy can give them bet­ter odds at suc­cess, while Cel­gene is jump­ing in with its own new pipeline. Oth­ers want to see if com­bi­na­tion ap­proach­es us­ing tau and amy­loid be­ta to­geth­er could work. 

Mer­ck’s sug­ges­tion about go­ing even ear­li­er in the dis­ease process has al­so prompt­ed a range of stud­ies in pre-symp­to­matic pa­tients, while the FDA has sig­naled its in­ter­est in com­ing up with bio­mark­ers to help speed new stud­ies.

Af­ter more than 200 R&D projects end­ed in dis­as­ter, though, Alzheimer’s is look­ing like an in­creas­ing­ly daunt­ing chal­lenge, with no clear path for­ward that would in­spire con­fi­dence among pa­tients with the dis­ease.

Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House (Photo: AFP)

Trump’s HHS claims ab­solute au­thor­i­ty over the FDA, clear­ing path to a vac­cine EUA

The top career staff at the FDA has vowed not to let politics overrule science when looking at vaccine data this fall. But Alex Azar, who happens to be their boss’s boss, apparently won’t even give them a chance to stand in the way.

In a new memorandum issued Tuesday last week, the HHS chief stripped the FDA and other health agencies under his purview of their rule making ability, asserting all such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times first obtained and reported the details of the September 15 bulletin.

#ES­MO20: Push­ing in­to front­line, Mer­ck and Bris­tol My­ers duke it out with new slate of GI can­cer da­ta

Having worked in parallel for years to move their respective PD-1 inhibitors up to the first-line treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb finally have the data at ESMO for a showdown.

Comparing KEYNOTE-590 and CheckMate-649, of course, comes with the usual caveats. But a side-by-side look at the overall survival numbers also offer some perspective on a new frontier for the reigning checkpoint rivals, both of whom are claiming to have achieved a first.

President Donald Trump (via AP Images)

Signs of an 'Oc­to­ber Vac­cine Sur­prise' alarm ca­reer sci­en­tists

President Donald Trump, who seems intent on announcing a Covid-19 vaccine before Election Day, could legally authorize a vaccine over the objections of experts, officials at the FDA and even vaccine manufacturers, who have pledged not to release any vaccine unless it’s proved safe and effective.

In podcasts, public forums, social media and medical journals, a growing number of prominent health leaders say they fear that Trump — who has repeatedly signaled his desire for the swift approval of a vaccine and his displeasure with perceived delays at the FDA — will take matters into his own hands, running roughshod over the usual regulatory process.

Eli Lilly CSO Dan Skovronsky (file photo)

UP­DAT­ED: #ES­MO20: Eli Lil­ly shows off the da­ta for its Verzenio suc­cess. Was it worth $18 bil­lion?

The press release alone, devoid of any number except for the size of the trial, added nearly $20 billion to Eli Lilly’s market cap back in June. Now investors and oncologists will get to see if the data live up to the hype.

On Sunday at ESMO, Eli Lilly announced the full results for its Phase III MonarchE trial of Verzenio, showing that across over 5,000 women who had had HR+, HER2- breast cancer, the drug reduced the odds of recurrence by 25%. That meant 7.8% of the patients on the drug arm saw their cancers return within 2 years, compared with 11.3% on the placebo arm.

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Greg Friberg (File photo)

#ES­MO20: Am­gen team nails down sol­id ear­ly ev­i­dence of AMG 510’s po­ten­tial for NSCLC, un­lock­ing the door to a wave of KRAS pro­grams

The first time I sat down with Amgen’s Greg Friberg to talk about the pharma giant’s KRAS G12C program for sotorasib (AMG 510) at ASCO a little more than a year ago, there was high excitement about the first glimpse of efficacy from their Phase I study, with 5 of 10 evaluable non-small cell lung cancer patients demonstrating a response to the drug.

After decades of failure targeting KRAS, sotorasib offered the first positive look at a new approach that promised to open a door to a whole new approach by targeting a particular mutation to a big target that had remained “undruggable” for decades.

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#ES­MO20: Out to beat Tagris­so, J&J touts 100% ORR for EGFR bis­pe­cif­ic/TKI com­bo — fu­el­ing a quick leap to PhI­II

J&J’s one-two punch on EGFR-mutant non-small cell lung cancer has turned up some promising — although decidedly early — results, fueling the idea that there’s yet room to one up on third-generation tyrosine kinase inhibitors.

Twenty out of 20 advanced NSCLC patients had a response after taking a combination of an in-house TKI dubbed lazertinib and amivantamab, a bispecific antibody targeting both EGFR and cMET engineered on partner Genmab’s platform, J&J reported at ESMO. All were treatment-naïve, and none has seen their cancer progress at a median follow-up of seven months.

#ES­MO20: Bris­tol My­ers marks Op­di­vo's sec­ond ad­ju­vant win — eye­ing a stan­dard of care gap

Moving into earlier and earlier treatment lines, Bristol Myers Squibb is reporting that adjuvant treatment with Opdivo has doubled the time that esophageal or gastroesophageal junction cancer patients stay free of disease.

With the CheckMate-577 data at ESMO, CMO Samit Hirawat said, the company believes it can change the treatment paradigm.

While a quarter to 30% of patients typically achieve a complete response following chemoradiation therapy and surgery, the rest do not, said Ronan Kelly of Baylor University Medical Center. The recurrence rate is also high within the first year, Hirawat added.

Clay Siegall (Life Science Washington via YouTube)

#ES­MO20: Seat­tle Ge­net­ics eyes 4th ap­proval with new da­ta in a crowd­ed field

Does Seattle Genetics have another approval on its hands?

The last 12 months, not so great for the world, has been great for Seattle Genetics. The company landed two separate FDA approvals, signed a $4.5 billion deal with Merck and watched antibody-drug conjugates — the technology they spent years developing to broad industry skepticism — emerge suddenly as one of the most popular approaches in oncology. And on Monday at ESMO, the company and their partners at Genmab unveiled the data behind the ADC it hopes will provide its next major FDA approval.

Jonathan Rigby, Immune Regulation group CEO

Im­mune Reg­u­la­tion, tak­ing two clin­i­cal pro­grams to 're­set' the im­mune sys­tem, nets $53M+ Se­ries B

A little under two years after a company rebranding, Immune Regulation is taking an even bigger step toward advancing its goals.

Formerly known as Peptinnovate, the British biotech announced a $53.4 million Series B early Monday morning, helping to further advance two clinical programs in rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. Though those are the two initial indications the company is focusing on, CEO Jonathan Rigby told Endpoints News he hopes the candidates can be applied to a broad swath of autoimmune disorders.