No­var­tis’ CAR-T chief Azam is leav­ing, but phar­ma gi­ant de­nies any ‘re­treat’ is un­der­way


No­var­tis re­spond­ed to a re­port in End­points News this morn­ing which out­lines the com­pa­ny’s de­ci­sion to purge most of the ex­ec­u­tive team in­volved in its pi­o­neer­ing cell and gene ther­a­py unit. Ac­cord­ing to the com­pa­ny, the de­ci­sion to cut up to 120 staffers as it re­de­ployed most of the 400 staffers back in­to its on­col­o­gy di­vi­sion does not sig­ni­fy any kind of a “re­treat.”

No­var­tis is still on track to nab the first FDA OK for a CAR-T to treat pe­di­atric acute lym­phoblas­tic leukemia, as­serts a com­pa­ny state­ment. In ad­di­tion, the com­pa­ny said that Us­man “Oz” Azam, the glob­al chief for this unit, has de­cid­ed to leave the com­pa­ny, while oth­er team ex­ecs in­volved in the cut­back still have a chance to land new jobs at the phar­ma gi­ant.

Ear­li­er this week End­points broke the sto­ry that No­var­tis is dis­band­ing the unit, which had been charged with de­vel­op­ing No­var­tis’s CAR-T pipeline, backed with con­sid­er­able hoopla two years ago in a cov­er sto­ry on CEO Joe Jimenez in Forbes.

This morn­ing, we fol­lowed up with a new re­port af­ter gain­ing ac­cess to the full memo that Azam had writ­ten. In it, he not­ed:

Un­for­tu­nate­ly a num­ber of col­leagues will be im­pact­ed by this change as many po­si­tions are be­ing elim­i­nat­ed. Im­pact­ed US-based as­so­ciates are be­ing no­ti­fied in meet­ings to­day. As­so­ci­ates based in Basel will learn more about their in­di­vid­ual cir­cum­stances on Thurs­day. The ma­jor­i­ty of the CG­TU Lead­er­ship Team mem­bers, who are among the best I have worked with, are al­so im­pact­ed.

The com­pa­ny’s re­sponse, though, is not like­ly to change the grow­ing per­cep­tion that the com­pa­ny is pulling back from the field just as the first CAR-T drugs are be­ing prepped for the FDA. Kite is now the wide­ly rec­og­nized leader af­ter a re­cent set­back at Juno, with plans to hus­tle an ap­pli­ca­tion to the FDA lat­er this year. And a num­ber of oth­er com­pa­nies are in the hunt to fol­low up with new drugs of their own.

Here’s the full re­sponse:

No­var­tis is seek­ing to clar­i­fy mis­in­for­ma­tion in the lat­est End­points re­port on the re-in­te­gra­tion of the Cell & Gene Ther­a­pies Unit (CG­TU) in­to the broad­er No­var­tis or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Con­trary to your head­line that we are “re­treat­ing from CAR-T,” our com­mit­ment to CAR-T and CRISPR tech­nolo­gies re­mains strong.  As we have pre­vi­ous­ly stat­ed, CTL019 is on track to be filed with the FDA ear­ly next year and with the EMA lat­er in 2017.  In fact, we ex­pect CTL019 will be the first chimeric anti­gen re­cep­tor T-cell (CAR T) ther­a­py to be ap­proved for pe­di­atric acute lym­phoblas­tic leukemia.

Dr. Us­man Azam along with his lead­er­ship team helped to de­sign the en­tire re-in­te­gra­tion plan. Ac­tions like re-in­te­gra­tion in­to oth­er parts of busi­ness­es can cause re­dun­dan­cies in roles, e.g. HR, fi­nance, le­gal, and that is why some peo­ple will leave our or­ga­ni­za­tion.  Dr. Azam de­cid­ed that as part of the re-in­te­gra­tion he would like to use this tran­si­tion to look at new op­por­tu­ni­ties out­side of the com­pa­ny. The CG­TU lead­er­ship team, along with ap­prox­i­mate­ly 120 oth­er as­so­ciates who will be im­pact­ed, have the op­por­tu­ni­ty to stay at No­var­tis if there is a role that is avail­able or suit­able for them.  It is im­por­tant to note that most of the CG­TU em­ploy­ees will be re­de­ployed to oth­er parts of the com­pa­ny.

At No­var­tis, we are trans­form­ing the com­pa­ny to be more fo­cused with a less-com­plex, more ag­ile struc­ture. While the CG­TU struc­ture was crit­i­cal to ramp up our ca­pa­bil­i­ties in cer­tain ar­eas like man­u­fac­tur­ing, clin­i­cal tri­als and com­mer­cial­iza­tion for a com­plete­ly new way of treat­ing can­cer, now that the com­pa­ny has re-or­ga­nized un­der a new op­er­at­ing mod­el, the re-in­te­gra­tion of CG­TU is the log­i­cal next step in our evo­lu­tion.

The No­var­tis en­ter­prise has all of the ca­pa­bil­i­ties we need to ef­fi­cient­ly re-in­te­grate CG­TU in­to the broad­er or­ga­ni­za­tion: lead­er­ship in on­col­o­gy and hema­tol­ogy specif­i­cal­ly, a glob­al com­mer­cial and de­vel­op­ment foot­print, a strong en­ter­prise man­u­fac­tur­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion, as well as sup­port func­tions to en­able a suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion.

No­var­tis is proud that we have played a lead­er­ship role in ad­vanc­ing the sci­en­tif­ic con­cept of CAR-T to the point where this com­plex way of treat­ing can­cer can be­come a re­al­i­ty for pa­tients. We look for­ward to con­tin­u­ing to ad­vance the sci­ence and our ca­pa­bil­i­ties in this ex­cit­ing area of med­i­cine.

Jean-Paul Clozel, Idorsia CEO (Patrick Straub/Keystone via AP Images)

Idor­si­a's brain bleed drug flunks PhI­II tri­al, a decade af­ter pre­vi­ous flop

Idorsia’s long journey with clazosentan came to an abrupt “unexpected result” Monday morning with a Phase III flop.

The Swiss biopharma said the drug did not meet the main goal of the late-stage REACT study, conducted in the US, Canada and Europe since early 2019.

The 409-patient trial tested the intravenous drug’s ability to prevent complications due to delayed cerebral ischemia following aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage (aSAH), in which blood vessels in the brain narrow and blood accumulates around the brain’s surface, which then dials up the pressure on the brain.

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Kenji Yasukawa, Astellas CEO (Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Astel­las taps chief strat­e­gy of­fi­cer as next CEO to 'go on the ag­gres­sive'

Five years into its big R&D revamp, Astellas says it’s time for a changing of the guard.

Kenji Yasukawa, who took over as president and CEO in 2018, will step down to become chairman of the board in April, making room for Naoki Okamura to take over. Okamura joined the company in 1986 and has served in a variety of finance, business and strategy roles, including most recently as chief strategy officer.

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Clin­i­cal tri­al di­ver­si­ty da­ta show mis­match be­tween en­roll­ment and dis­ease preva­lence, GSK says

A lack of diversity in clinical trials has persisted despite decades of initiatives to try to turn the tide.

In a recent review of 17 years of clinical trials, drugmaker GSK found that there were some mismatches between the demographics of its US-based trials and how prevalent diseases were in those populations.

The results, the company says, will help GSK and others design studies that better represent epidemiological rates within races and ethnicities.

The Big Phar­ma dis­card pile; Lay­offs all around while some biotechs bid farewell; New Roche CEO as­sem­bles top team; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

With earnings seasons in full swing, we’ve listened in on all the calls so you don’t have to. But news is popping up from all corners, so make sure you check out our other updates, too.

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Ma­gen­ta halts stem cell work and may sell it­self fol­low­ing pa­tient death, clin­i­cal hold

Magenta Therapeutics said it is halting work on its stem cell transplant drug pipeline and may sell itself, a week after the company reported the death of a patient in an early stage trial of its antibody-drug conjugate.

The Cambridge, MA-based company said it will conduct a “review of strategic alternatives,” and that could include an “acquisition, merger, business combination, or other transaction.”

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How to use ex­ter­nal con­trols: FDA spells out think­ing in new draft guid­ance

The use of real-world evidence to inform the FDA’s decision-making continues apace, with the agency releasing new draft guidance yesterday on how sponsors can compare outcomes of trial participants receiving a test treatment with outcomes in a group of people external to the trial.

The practice of externally controlled trials is common, particularly in oncology or other difficult areas where it’s not ethical or feasible to use internal controls.

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The Big Phar­ma axe: Mer­ck cuts chikun­gun­ya vax, Bris­tol My­ers drops Cy­tomX-part­nered pro­gram, and more

As fourth quarter earnings come in, Big Pharmas are disclosing changes to their pipelines during their investor calls, and sometimes more quietly in presentation appendices.

Merck dropped its chikungunya vaccine candidate, which completed a Phase II study. Merck acquired the vaccine through its purchase of Themis Bioscience in 2020. In developing a vaccine for chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus, Valneva is the frontrunner, as it submitted its vaccine to the FDA at the end of December.

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Goldfinch Bio CEO Tony Johnson (L) and Karuna Therapeutics CEO Bill Meury

Karuna li­cens­es Goldfinch as­sets to com­pete with Boehringer In­gel­heim in neu­ro­science

Karuna Therapeutics is looking to compete with Boehringer Ingelheim on depression and anxiety with a new license to Goldfinch Bio’s assets, starting with $15 million to the shuttered biotech.

Karuna steps into an arena already being tested by Boehringer in multiple Phase II studies — the two are targeting transient receptor potential canonical 4 and 5, or TRPC4/5, which is thought to have a role in neuroscience indications. Goldfinch’s asset went through a Phase II in kidney diseases, but Karuna’s sights are set on mood and anxiety disorders for now.

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Roche's headquarters in Basel, Switzerland (Kyle LaHucik for Endpoints News)

Roche ditch­es fi­nal PhI­II for can­cer hope­ful, re­ports set­back for key drug in $1.4B buy­out

Over the past few years, Roche has released news about its AKT inhibitor ipatasertib in drips — most of them negative. The drug yielded mixed data in a key prostate cancer trial, Phase III flops in triple-negative breast cancer forced the pharma giant to pull the plug there, and in mid-2022 Roche trimmed two more early-stage indications in prostate cancer after completing the trials.

Now, the last piece of the program is gone.

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