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.

John Hood [file photo]

UP­DATE: Cel­gene and the sci­en­tist who cham­pi­oned fe­dra­tinib's rise from Sanofi's R&D grave­yard win FDA OK

Six years after Sanofi gave it up for dead, the FDA has approved the myelofibrosis drug fedratinib, now owned by Celgene.

The drug will be sold as Inrebic, and will soon land in the portfolio at Bristol-Myers Squibb, which is finalizing a deal to acquire Celgene.

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UP­DAT­ED: AveX­is sci­en­tif­ic founder was axed — and No­var­tis names a new CSO in wake of an ethics scan­dal

Now at the center of a storm of controversy over its decision to keep its knowledge of manipulated data hidden from regulators during an FDA review, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has found a longtime veteran in the ranks to head the scientific work underway at AveXis, where the incident occurred. And the scientific founder has hit the exit.

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Ab­b­Vie gets its FDA OK for JAK in­hibitor upadac­i­tinib, but don’t look for this one to hit ex­ecs’ lofty ex­pec­ta­tions

Another big drug approval came through on Friday afternoon as the FDA OK’d AbbVie’s upadacitinib — an oral JAK1 inhibitor that is hitting the rheumatoid arthritis market with a black box warning of serious malignancies, infections and thrombosis reflecting fears associated with the class.

It will be sold as Rinvoq — at a wholesale price of $59,000 a year — and will likely soon face competition from a drug that AbbVie once controlled, and spurned. Reuters reports that a 4-week supply of Humira, by comparison, is $5,174, adding up to about $67,000 a year.

The top 10 fran­chise drugs in bio­phar­ma his­to­ry will earn a to­tal of $1.4T (tril­lion) by 2024 — what does that tell us?

Just in case you were looking for more evidence of just how important Amgen’s patent win on Enbrel is for the company and its investors, EvaluatePharma has come up with a forward-looking consensus estimate on what the list of top 10 drugs will look like in 2024.

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ICER blasts FDA, PTC and Sarep­ta for high prices on DMD drugs Em­flaza, Ex­ondys 51

ICER has some strong words for PTC, Sarepta and the FDA as the US drug price watchdog concludes that as currently priced, their respective new treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy are decidedly not cost-effective.

The final report — which cements the conclusions of a draft issued in May — incorporates the opinion of a panel of 17 experts ICER convened in a public meeting last month. It also based its analysis of Emflaza (deflazacort) and Exondys 51 (eteplirsen) on updated annual costs of $81,400 and over $1 million, respectively, after citing “incorrect” lower numbers in the initial calculations.

The key dates for KRAS watch­ers through the end of the year — the trail is nar­row and risks are ex­treme

There’s nothing quite like a big patent win when it comes to burnishing your prospects in the pipeline. And for Amgen, which seems to have rescued Enbrel for a run to 2029, the cheering section on Wall Street is now fixed on AMG 510 and a key rival.

And it didn’t take much data to do it. 

There was the first snapshot of a handful of patients, with a 50% response rate. Then came word that Amgen researchers are also tracking responses in different cancers, at least one in colorectal cancer and appendiceal too. 

Bain's Or­ly Mis­han joins Pfiz­er's neu­ro spin­out Cerev­el; On­colyt­ic virus biotech taps Sil­la­Jen ex­ec He­le­na Chaye as CEO

→ Bain Capital is deploying one of its top investors to Cerevel Therapeutics, steering a $350 million-plus neuro play carved out of Pfizer. Orly Mishan — a co-founder and principal of Bain’s life sciences unit — was involved in the partnership that birthed the biotech spinout in the first place. As Cerevel’s first chief business officer, she is tasked with corporate development, program management as well as technical operations. 

UP­DAT­ED: Sci­en­tist-CEO ac­cused of im­prop­er­ly us­ing con­fi­den­tial in­fo from uni­corn Alec­tor

The executive team at Alector $ALEC has a bone to pick with scientific co-founder Asa Abeliovich. Their latest quarterly rundown has this brief note buried inside:

On June 18, 2019, we initiated a confidential arbitration proceeding against Dr. Asa Abeliovich, our former consulting co-founder, related to alleged breaches of his consulting agreement and the improper use of our confidential information that he learned during the course of rendering services to us as our consulting Chief Scientific Officer/Chief Innovation Officer. We are in the early stage of this arbitration proceeding and are unable to assess or provide any assurances regarding its possible outcome.

There’s no explicit word in the filing on what kind of confidential info was involved, but the proceeding got started 2 days ahead of Abeliovich’s IPO.

Abeliovich, formerly a tenured associate professor at Columbia, is a top scientist in the field of neurodegeneration, which is where Alector is targeted. More recently, he’s also helped start up Prevail Therapeutics as the CEO, which raised $125 million in an IPO. And there he’s planning on working on new gene therapies that target genetically defined subpopulations of Parkinson’s disease. Followup programs target Gaucher disease, frontotemporal dementia and synucleinopathies.

But this time Abeliovich is the CEO rather than a founding scientist. And some of their pipeline overlaps with Alector’s.

Abeliovich and Prevail, though, aren’t taking this one lying down.

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Chi­na has be­come a CEO-lev­el pri­or­i­ty for multi­na­tion­al phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies: the trend and the im­pli­ca­tions

After a “hot” period of rapid growth between 2009 and 2012, and a relatively “cooler” period of slower growth from 2013 to 2015, China has once again become a top-of-mind priority for the CEOs of most large, multinational pharmaceutical companies.

At the International Pharma Forum, hosted in March in Beijing by the R&D Based Pharmaceutical Association Committee (RDPAC) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), no fewer than seven CEOs of major multinational pharmaceutical firms participated, including GSK, Eli Lilly, LEO Pharma, Merck KGaA, Pfizer, Sanofi and UCB. A few days earlier, the CEOs of several other large multinationals attended the China Development Forum, an annual business forum hosted by the research arm of China’s State Council. It’s hard to imagine any other country, except the US, having such drawing power at CEO level.