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.

It’s fi­nal­ly over: Bio­gen, Ei­sai scrap big Alzheimer’s PhI­I­Is af­ter a pre­dictable BACE cat­a­stro­phe rais­es safe­ty fears

Months after analysts and investors called on Biogen and Eisai to scrap their BACE drug for Alzheimer’s and move on in the wake of a string of late-stage failures and rising safety fears, the partners have called it quits. And they said they were dropping the drug — elenbecestat — after the independent monitoring board raised concerns about…safety.

We don’t know exactly what researchers found in this latest catastrophe, but the companies noted in their release that investigators had determined that the drug was flunking the risk/benefit analysis.

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It's not per­fect, but it's a good start: FDA pan­elists large­ly en­dorse Aim­mune's peanut al­ler­gy ther­a­py

Two days after a fairly benign review from FDA staff, an independent panel of experts largely endorsed the efficacy and safety of Aimmune’s peanut allergy therapy, laying the groundwork for approval with a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy (REMS).

Traditionally, peanut allergies are managed by avoidance, but the threat of accidental exposure cannot be nullified. Some allergists have devised a way to dose patients off-label with peanut protein derived from supermarket products to wean them off their allergies. But the idea behind Aimmune’s product was to standardize the peanut protein, and track the process of desensitization — so when accidental exposure in the real world invariably occurs, patients are less likely to experience a life-threatening allergic reaction.

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Lisa M. DeAngelis, MSKCC

MSK picks brain can­cer ex­pert Lisa DeAn­ge­lis as its next CMO — fol­low­ing José Basel­ga’s con­tro­ver­sial ex­it

It’s official. Memorial Sloan Kettering has picked a brain cancer expert as its new physician-in-chief and CMO, replacing José Baselga, who left under a cloud after being singled out by The New York Times and ProPublica for failing to properly air his lucrative industry ties.

His replacement, who now will be in charge of MSK’s cutting-edge research work as well as the cancer care delivered by hundreds of practitioners, is Lisa M. DeAngelis. DeAngelis had been chair of the neurology department and co-founder of MSK’s brain tumor center and was moved in to the acting CMO role in the wake of Baselga’s departure.

Penn team adapts CAR-T tech, reengi­neer­ing mouse cells to treat car­diac fi­bro­sis

After establishing itself as one of the pioneer research centers in the world for CAR-T cancer therapies, creating new attack vehicles to eradicate cancer cells, a team at Penn Medicine has begun the tricky transition of using the basic technology for heart repair work.

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Tal Zaks. Moderna

The mR­NA uni­corn Mod­er­na has more ear­ly-stage hu­man da­ta it wants to show off — reach­ing new peaks in prov­ing the po­ten­tial

The whole messenger RNA field has attracted billions of dollars in public and private investor cash gambled on the prospect of getting in on the ground floor. And this morning Boston-based Moderna, one of the leaders in the field, wants to show off a few more of the cards it has to play to prove to you that they’re really in the game.

The whole hand, of course, has yet to be dealt. And there’s no telling who gets to walk with a share of the pot. But any cards on display at this point — especially after being accused of keeping its deck under lock and key — will attract plenty of attention from some very wary, and wired, observers.

“In terms of the complexity and unmet need,” says Tal Zaks, the chief medical officer, “this is peak for what we’ve accomplished.”

Moderna has two Phase I studies it wants to talk about now.

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Sanofi takes a $260M hit to ex­tri­cate it­self from a dis­as­trous al­liance with Lex­i­con

Sanofi spent $300 million in cash to get into a $1.7 billion alliance with Lexicon on their SGLT1/2 diabetes drug sotagliflozin. And now that the drug has been spurned by the FDA after burning through a program that provided mixed late-stage data and a late shot at a last-place finish, the French pharma giant is forking over another $260 million to get out of the deal.

Sanofi’s unhappiness was already apparent when the company — now under new CEO Paul Hudson — posted a statement back in July that they were dropping the deal. But it wasn’t that simple. 

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Rit­ter bombs fi­nal PhI­II for sole lac­tose in­tol­er­ance drug — shares plum­met

More than two years ago Ritter Pharmaceuticals managed to find enough silver lining in its Phase IIb/III study — after missing the top-line mark — to propel its lactose intolerance toward a confirmatory trial. But as it turned out, the enthusiasm only set the biotech and its investors up to be sorely disappointed.

This time around there’s little left to salvage. Not only did RP-G28 fail to beat placebo in reducing lactose intolerance symptoms, patients in the treatment group actually averaged a smaller improvement. On a composite score measuring symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and gas, patients given the drug had a mean reduction of 3.159 while the placebo cohort saw a 3.420 drop on average (one-sided p-value = 0.0106).

Ear­ly snap­shot of Ad­verum's eye gene ther­a­py sparks con­cern about vi­sion loss

An early-stage update on Adverum Biotechnologies’ intravitreal gene therapy has triggered investor concern, after patients with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) saw their vision deteriorate, despite signs that the treatment is improving retinal anatomy.

Adverum, on Wednesday, unveiled 24-week data from the OPTIC trial of its experimental therapy, ADVM-022, in six patients who have been administered with one dose of the therapy. On average, patients in the trial had severe disease with an average of 6.2 anti-VEGF injections in the eight months prior to screening and an average annualized injection frequency of 9.3 injections.

Alex Ar­faei trades his an­a­lyst's post for a new role as biotech VC; Sanofi vet heads to Vi­for

Too often, Alex Arfaei arrived too late. 

An analyst at BMO Capital Markets, he’d meet with biotech or pharmaceutical heads for their IPO or secondary funding and his brain, trained on a biology degree and six years at Merck and Endo, would spring with questions: Why this biomarker? Why this design? Why not this endpoint? Not that he could do anything about it. These execs were coming for clinical money; their decisions had been made and finalized long ago.