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.

Com­mu­ni­cat­ing the val­ue of pre­ci­sion med­i­cine

By Natasha Cowan, Content Marketing Manager at Blue Latitude Health.
Many stakeholders are confused by novel precision medicines, including patients and healthcare professionals. So, how can industry help them to navigate this complexity?

Precision medicine represents a new paradigm in healthcare. It embodies the shift from treating many patients with the same therapy, to having the tools to identify the best treatment for every patient.

(Image: Associated Press)

Amarin emerges from an ex­pert pan­el re­view with a clear en­dorse­ment for Vas­cepa and high odds of suc­cess when the FDA weighs in for­mal­ly

Several FDA experts who gathered Thursday to consider the landmark approval of Vascepa to reduce cardio events in an at-risk population voiced their unease about various aspects of the efficacy and safety data, or ultimately the population it should be used to treat. But the overwhelming belief that the data pointed to the drug’s benefit and clearly outweighed risks carried the day for Amarin.

The panel voted unanimously (16 to 0) to support the company’s positive data presentation — backing an OK for expanding the label to include reducing cardio risk. The vote points Amarin $AMRN down a short path to a formal decision by the FDA, with the odds heavily in its favor. Chances are the rest of the questions about the future of this drug will be hashed out in the label’s small print.

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What does $62B buy you these days? A lot, says Take­da ex­ecs as the phar­ma play­er promis­es a block­buster R&D fu­ture

First comes the $62 billion buyout. Then comes the asset auction and reorganization to pay down debt. Now comes the detailed pledge of a bigger, brighter future in drug development.

That’s where Takeda finds itself on R&D day today, about 11 months after closing on their Shire acquisition. R&D chief Andy Plump is joining CEO Christophe Weber and other top members of the team to outline a new set of priorities in the greatly expanded pipeline at Takeda, which has jumped into the top ranks of the world’s pharma giants in the wake of the Shire deal.

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BeiGene CEO John Oyler at an Endpoints event in Shanghai, October 2018 (Credit: Endpoints News/PharmCube)

UP­DAT­ED: Chi­na's BeiGene scores first-ever FDA ap­proval — but can they carve up J&J's block­buster fran­chise?

Weeks after Amgen took a $2.7 billion stake in BeiGene, the Beijing-based biotech has secured its first-ever FDA approval for zanubrutinib, a BTK inhibitor, months ahead of schedule.

BeiGene’s drug, branded as Brukinsa, has secured accelerated approval for adult patients with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) — a typically aggressive, rare, form of blood cancer — who have received at least one prior therapy.

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Spe­cial re­port: Twen­ty ex­tra­or­di­nary women in bio­phar­ma R&D who worked their way to the top

What differentiates a woman leader in biopharma R&D from a man?

Not much, except there are fewer of them in senior posts. Data suggest women are not more risk-averse, family-oriented or less confident than their male counterparts — indeed the differences between the two sexes are negligible. But a glance at the top R&D positions in Big Pharma leaves little doubt that upward migration in the executive ranks of biopharma R&D is tough.

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GSK's asth­ma bi­o­log­ic Nu­cala scores in rare blood dis­or­der study

GlaxoSmithKline’s asthma drug Nucala, which received a resounding FDA rejection for use in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) last year, has shown promise in a rare blood disorder.

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Mer­ck buys a fledg­ling neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive biotech spawned by an old GSK dis­cov­ery al­liance. What’s up with that?

Avalon Ventures chief Jay Lichter has a well-known yen for drug development programs picked up in academia. And what he found in Haoxing Xu’s lab at the University of Michigan pricked his interest enough to launch one of his umbrella biotechs in San Diego.

Xu’s work laid the foundation for Avalon to launch Calporta, which has been working on finding small molecule agonists of TRPML1 (transient receptor potential cation channel, mucolipin subfamily, member 1) for lysosomal storage disorders. And that pathway, they believe, points to new approaches on major market neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, ALS and Alzheimer’s.

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Carson Block. Muddy Waters via YouTube

Shorts ga­lore: Mud­dy Wa­ters sees slide for Pep­tiDream, tweets con­cerns about Fi­bro­Gen's new da­ta

The short seller Muddy Waters is taking aim at Japan’s most profitable biotech, projecting a slide for a company that has skyrocketed over the last four years. Meanwhile, the firm tweeted out an analysis accusing FibroGen of manipulating data to obscure safety concerns in their latest reveal, although some investors seem satisfied by the biotech’s explanation.

Muddy Waters shorted PeptiDream, a Japanese biotech-for-hire that leveraged its peptide library into partnerships with some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, a 50% profit margin and $6 billion valuation. The firm noted that despite its esteem, PeptiDream has failed to bring a drug to market 13 years after its 2006 launch (although this is not especially rare for biotech).

Pin­cer move­ment: Cal­i­for­nia biotech gets $35M to suf­fo­cate can­cer in co­or­di­nat­ed at­tack

Having served in Afghanistan, the navy veteran leading California-based EpicentRx wants to leave no patient behind with his arsenal of anti-cancer drugs. On Thursday, the company was given a $35 million boost to further its mission.

The injection of funds will be used to shepherd its late-stage CD47 drug, RRx-001, to the FDA for marketing, and its oncolytic virus program into the clinic.

RRx-001, engineered as an agent that makes tumor cells more sensitive to therapy, is in a Phase III trial in combination with chemotherapy for use in third-line and beyond small cell lung cancer (SCLC). The drug has been granted orphan drug designation from FDA for SCLC, neuroendocrine cancer and glioblastoma.