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.

Covid-19 roundup: Eu­rope pur­chas­es 80M dos­es of Mod­er­na's vac­cine; CO­V­AXX se­cures $2.8B in emerg­ing mar­ket pre-or­ders

With the announcement of its vaccine efficacy data last week, Moderna is starting to line up customers for its Covid-19 mRNA jabs.

The Massachusetts-based biotech announced Wednesday it has agreed to sell an initial round of 80 million doses to the European Commission, with the option to double the amount to 160 million. Once the member states rubber stamp the approval, the deal will be finalized.

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Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter Ko­dak de­ba­cle, US lends $1.1B to a syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy com­pa­ny and their big Covid-19, mR­NA plans

In mid-August, as Kodak’s $765 million government-backed push into drug manufacturing slowly fell apart in national headlines, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO Jason Kelly got a message from his company’s government liaison: HHS wanted to know if they, too, might want a loan.

The government’s decision to lend Kodak three quarters of a billion dollars raised eyebrows because Kodak had never made drugs before. But Ginkgo, while not a manufacturing company, had spent the last decade refining new ways to produce materials inside cells and building automated facilities across Boston.

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Pascal Soriot (AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: As­traZeneca, Ox­ford on the de­fen­sive as skep­tics dis­miss 70% av­er­age ef­fi­ca­cy for Covid-19 vac­cine

On the third straight Monday that the world wakes up to positive vaccine news, AstraZeneca and Oxford are declaring a new Phase III milestone in the fight against the pandemic. Not everyone is convinced they will play a big part, though.

With an average efficacy of 70%, the headline number struck analysts as less impressive than the 95% and 94.5% protection that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have boasted in the past two weeks, respectively. But the British partners say they have several other bright spots going for their candidate. One of the two dosing regimens tested in Phase III showed a better profile, bringing efficacy up to 90%; the adenovirus vector-based vaccine requires minimal refrigeration, which may mean easier distribution; and AstraZeneca has pledged to sell it at a fraction of the price that the other two vaccine developers are charging.

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Vivek Ramaswamy (Jeff Rumans/JPM 2020)

Urovan­t's lead drug dis­ap­points in mid-stage study as first big FDA de­ci­sion looms

Just as Urovant gets ready for its first big FDA decision on vibegron, the drug has flopped in what would’ve been a follow-on indication.

In a Phase IIa trial involving women with abdominal pain due to irritable bowel syndrome, vibegron failed to meet the bar on improving “average worst abdominal pain” over 12 weeks, compared to placebo, among IBS-D patients.

There were actually slightly more responders in the placebo group than in the drug arm, with only 40.9% of those randomized to vigebron achieving at least a 30% decrease in “worst abdominal pain” in the past 24 hours. The trial enrolled 222 women but only 189 completed the study.

Gen­mab ax­es an ADC de­vel­op­ment pro­gram af­ter the da­ta fail to im­press

Genmab $GMAB has opted to ax one of its antibody-drug conjugates after watching it flop in the clinic.

The Danish biotech reported Tuesday that it decided to kill their program for enapotamab vedotin after the data gathered from expansion cohorts failed to measure up. According to the company:

While enapotamab vedotin has shown some evidence of clinical activity, this was not optimized by different dose schedules and/or predictive biomarkers. Accordingly, the data from the expansion cohorts did not meet Genmab’s stringent criteria for proof-of-concept.

Vas Narasimhan, Novartis CEO (Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Vas Narasimhan's 'Wild Card' drugs: No­var­tis CEO high­lights po­ten­tial jack­pots, as well as late-stage stars, in R&D pre­sen­ta­tion

Novartis is always one of the industry’s biggest R&D spenders. As they often do toward the end of each year, company execs are highlighting the drugs they expect will most likely be winners in 2021.

And they’re also dreaming about some potential big-time lottery tickets.

As part of its annual investor presentation Tuesday, where the company allows investors and analysts to virtually schmooze with the bigwigs, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan will outline what he thinks are the pharma’s “Wild Cards.” The slate of five experimental drugs are those that Novartis hopes can be high-risk, high-reward entrants into the market over the next half-decade or so, and cover a wide range of indications.

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FDA hands Liq­uidia and Re­vance a CRL and de­fer­ral, re­spec­tive­ly, as Covid-19 cre­ates in­spec­tion chal­lenge

Two biotechs said they got turned away by the FDA on Wednesday, in part due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

North Carolina-based Liquidia Technologies was handed a CRL for its lead pulmonary arterial hypertension drug, citing the need for more CMC data and on-site pre-approval inspections, which the FDA hasn’t been able to conduct due to travel restrictions. The agency also deferred its decision on Revance Therapeutics’ BLA for its frown line treatment, because it needs to inspect the company’s northern California manufacturing facility. The action, Revance emphasized, was not a CRL.

News brief­ing: FDA re­quests new tri­al for Reata's Friedre­ich's atax­ia pro­gram; J&J's Trem­fya picks up ex­pand­ed la­bel in Eu­rope

Three months after Reata Pharmaceuticals suggested its Friedreich’s ataxia program omaveloxolone could be delayed, the company revealed that is indeed going to be the case.

Reata $RETA shares took a nosedive Wednesday after the biotech revealed that the FDA said supplemental data for its pivotal trial did not strengthen the case for approval. As a result, the drug is likely to need another study before the FDA takes up the case.

Jef­frey Hat­field takes over from Diego Mi­ralles as CEO of Vi­vid­ion; Drag­on­fly scores a new ex­ec with COO Alex Lu­gov­skoy

→ San Diego protein degradation startup Vividion Therapeutics has made a change at the top with Jeffrey Hatfield taking the helm as CEO, replacing Diego Miralles six months after Roche forked over $135 million to collaborate with Vividion on their small molecule degraders. Hatfield is chairman of the board at miRagen Therapeutics and previously held the CEO job at Zafgen and Vitae Pharmaceuticals. He also had a series of leadership roles at Bristol Myers Squibb from 1996-2004, including SVP, immunology and virology divisions.