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.

Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk gestures to the audience after being recognized by President Trump following the successful launch of a Falcon 9 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center. (via Getty Images)

Tes­la chief Elon Musk teams up with Covid-19 play­er Cure­Vac to build 'R­NA mi­cro­fac­to­ries'

Elon Musk has joined the global tech crusade now underway to revolutionize vaccine manufacturing — now aimed at delivering billions of doses of a new mRNA vaccine to fight Covid-19. And he’s cutting right to the front.

In a late-night tweet Wednesday, the Tesla chief announced:

Tesla, as a side project, is building RNA microfactories for CureVac & possibly others.

That’s not a lot to go on. But the tweet comes a year after Tesla’s German division in Grohmann and CureVac filed a patent on a “bioreactor for RNA in vitro transcription, a method for RNA in vitro transcription, a module for transcribing DNA into RNA and an automated apparatus for RNA manufacturing.” CureVac, in the meantime, has discussed a variety of plans to build microfactories that can speed up the whole process for a global supply chain.

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Elias Zerhouni (Photo by Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images)

Elias Zer­houni dis­cuss­es ‘am­a­teur hour’ in DC, the de­struc­tion of in­fec­tious dis­ease R&D and how we need to prep for the next time

Elias Zerhouni favors blunt talk, and in a recent discussion with NPR, the ex-Sanofi R&D and ex-NIH chief had some tough points to make regarding the pandemic response.

Rather than interpret them, I thought it would be best to provide snippets straight from the interview.

On the Trump administration response:

It was basically amateur hour. There is no central concept of operations for preparedness, for pandemics, period. This administration doesn’t want to or has no concept of what it takes to protect the American people and the world because it is codependent. You can’t close your borders and say, “OK, we’re going to be safe.” You’re not going to be able to do that in this world. So it’s a lack of vision, basically just a lack of understanding, of what it takes to protect the American people.

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Sec­ond death trig­gers hold on Astel­las' $3B gene ther­a­py biotech's lead pro­gram, rais­ing fresh con­cerns about AAV

Seven months after Astellas shelled out $3 billion to acquire the gene therapy player Audentes, the biotech company’s lead program has been put on hold following the death of 2 patients taking a high dose of their treatment. And there was another serious adverse event recorded in the study as well, with a total of 3 “older” patients in the study affected.

The incidents are derailing plans to file for a near-term approval, which had been expected right about now.

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George Yancopoulos (Regeneron)

UP­DAT­ED: Re­gen­eron co-founder George Yan­copou­los of­fers a com­bat­ive de­fense of the po­lice at a high school com­mence­ment. It didn’t go well

Typically, the commencement speech at Yorktown Central School District in Westchester — like most high schools — is an opportunity to encourage students to face the future with confidence and hope. Regeneron president and co-founder George Yancopoulos, though, went a different route.

In a fiery speech, the outspoken billionaire defended the police against the “prejudice and bias against law enforcement” that has erupted around the country in street protests from coast to coast. And for many who attended the commencement, Yancopoulos struck the wrong note at the wrong time, especially when he combatively challenged someone for interrupting his speech with a honk for “another act of cowardness.”

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Pfiz­er shares surge on pos­i­tive im­pact of their mR­NA Covid-19 vac­cine — part­nered with BioN­Tech — in an ear­ly-stage study

Pfizer and their partners at the mRNA specialist BioNTech have published the first glimpse of biomarker data from an early-stage study spotlighting the “robust immunogenicity” triggered by their Covid-19 vaccine, which is one of the leaders in the race to vanquish the global pandemic.

Researchers selected 45 healthy volunteers 18-55 years of age for the study. They were randomized to receive 2 doses, separated by 21 days, of 10 µg, 30 µg, or 100 µg of BNT162b1, “a lipid nanoparticle-formulated, nucleoside-modified, mRNA vaccine that encodes trimerized SARS-CoV-2 spike glycoprotein RBD.” Their responses were compared against the effect of a natural, presumably protective defense offered by a regular infection.

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An ex­pe­ri­enced biotech is stitched to­geth­er from transpa­cif­ic parts, with 265 staffers and a fo­cus on ‘new bi­ol­o­gy’

Over the past few years, different teams at a pair of US-based biotechs and in labs in Japan have labored to piece together a group of cancer drug programs, sharing a single corporate umbrella with research colleagues in Japan. But now their far-flung operations have been knit together into a single unit, creating a pipeline with 10 cancer drug development programs — going from early-stage right into Phase III — and a host of discovery projects managed by a collective staff of some 265 people.

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Joseph Kim, Inovio CEO (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

Pos­i­tive Covid-19 vac­cine da­ta? New mouse study? OWS in­clu­sion? Yep, but some­how, the usu­al tid­bits from In­ovio back­fire

You don’t go more than 40 years in biotech without ever getting a product to market unless you can learn the art of writing a promotional press release. And Inovio captures the prize in baiting the hook.

Tuesday morning Inovio, which has been struggling to get its Covid-19 vaccine lined up for mass manufacturing, put out a release that touched on virtually every hot button in pandemic PR.

There was, first and foremost, an interim snapshot of efficacy from their Phase I program for INO-4800.

Jan van de Winkel, Genmab CEO

Seat­tle Ge­net­ics, Gen­mab turn on TV for a high­light reel in cer­vi­cal can­cer — but a ri­val biotech promis­es a bet­ter show

Seattle Genetics $SGEN and their partners at Genmab $GMAB polished up some positive Phase II numbers for their antibody drug conjugate tisotumab vedotin — you can call it TV — for recurrent cervical cancer. And while they mapped out a shortcut to a potential quick approval, the big challenge for this team is being presented by a rival biotech which muscled its way into the spotlight for the same indication a year ago.

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Dan Gold, MEI Pharma CEO

De­vel­op­ment part­ners at MEI, Helsinn dump a high-risk PhI­II AML study af­ter con­clud­ing it would fail sur­vival goal

Four years after Switzerland’s Helsinn put $25 million of cash on the table for an upfront and near-term milestone to take MEI Pharma’s drug pracinostat into a long-running Phase III trial for acute myeloid leukemia, the partners are walking away from a clinical pileup.

The drug — an HDAC inhibitor — failed to pass muster during a futility analysis, as researchers concluded that pracinostat combined with azacitidine wasn’t going to outperform the control group in the pivotal.