CBER Director Peter Marks (Greg Nash/Pool via AP Images)

Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed for rare dis­eases: CBER leader says pi­lot is com­ing soon

The next gen­er­a­tion of Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed is com­ing soon, and this time it’s go­ing to take aim at rare dis­eases, Pe­ter Marks, the di­rec­tor of the FDA’s Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­ics Eval­u­a­tion and Re­search, told at­ten­dees of the Bio­phar­ma Con­gress in Wash­ing­ton, DC on Mon­day.

“We’re get­ting ready to pi­lot that pro­gram,” Marks said, mak­ing clear the goal is to help ar­eas with high un­met needs.

I think the goal is to take a drug with some promise in the rare dis­ease space for dis­eases that don’t have al­ter­na­tives … and then take these prod­ucts, maybe they have break­through or ad­vanced ther­a­py des­ig­na­tion, they have promise and there is a prod­uct in de­vel­op­ment and not just a con­cept. And then give them the op­por­tu­ni­ty with not just chem­istry, man­u­fac­tur­ing and con­trols, which we have a pi­lot for, but al­low the clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment to hap­pen in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion and shar­ing of po­ten­tial re­sults be­fore a sub­mis­sion of an NDA or BLA. That’s the idea, is to move things as fast as pos­si­ble.

He said “it’s not un­like­ly in some of these rare dis­ease sit­u­a­tions that there will be hic­cups” and if those FDA-spon­sor con­ver­sa­tions can oc­cur in re­al time, they can re­solve those is­sues more quick­ly.

Celia Wit­ten

Marks stressed that he trusts his deputy Celia Wit­ten to find new tal­ent for the FDA’s re­tir­ing lead­er­ship as the agency tran­si­tions from its Of­fice of Tis­sues and Ad­vanced Ther­a­pies to the su­per-of­fice to be known as the Of­fice of Ther­a­peu­tic Prod­ucts, or OTP.

He al­so ex­plained how he’s look­ing in­to us­ing a Pro­ject Or­bis-like ap­proach to ex­pand­ing the ap­proval of gene and cell ther­a­pies through­out oth­er high-in­come coun­tries (e.g. UK, Japan, EU) as the FDA’s On­col­o­gy Cen­ter of Ex­cel­lence cur­rent­ly does for some new can­cer drugs and in­di­ca­tions.

“And we want to take it one step fur­ther for these rare dis­eases. For vac­cines, there’s WHO-pre­qual­i­fi­ca­tion, which is ba­si­cal­ly, WHO says this vac­cine has been li­censed in a ref­er­ence coun­try, it’s good enough for us, it should be good enough for you, and the idea is to quick­ly do that for gene ther­a­py so low­er-in­come coun­tries could po­ten­tial­ly make use of these ap­provals. Why is that im­por­tant? For some gene ther­a­pies, the on­ly way peo­ple will get treat­ment is if they get gene ther­a­py be­cause those coun­tries can­not af­ford sup­port­ive care, for in­stance,” Marks said, not­ing that “there may be ways to deal” with some of the mas­sive up­front costs.

When asked why there has been an in­crease in clin­i­cal holds from CBER, Marks not­ed mul­ti­ple caus­es in­clud­ing an in­crease in clin­i­cal tri­als, less ex­pe­ri­enced spon­sors in this cell and gene ther­a­py space, and

we see a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent type of INDs, some of which are miss­ing key pieces, and some­times those can be fixed with in­ter­ac­tive dis­cus­sions dur­ing the 30 days. But 30 days is not a lot of time if some­one doesn’t have a man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tion to their IND [laugh­ter in the au­di­ence] — don’t laugh, don’t laugh, it hap­pens enough, we have a rule of threes that I wouldn’t tell you about it if it didn’t hap­pen at least three times … There are some cas­es where we have bona fide spon­sors who have is­sues that prob­a­bly could be re­solved with in­ter­ac­tive re­view where we just don’t have the band­width.

OTP is look­ing to bring on about 125 new staffers to help with the cell and gene ther­a­py re­views thanks to the lat­est it­er­a­tion of the user fee deals, but the mar­ket for tal­ent is fierce­ly com­pet­i­tive.

FDA’s out­go­ing OTAT di­rec­tor Wil­son Bryan re­cent­ly an­nounced his in­tent to re­tire but told End­points News on Mon­day that he’s look­ing for­ward to the next chal­lenge, and want­ed to hand off the reins of the of­fice to the next set of in­com­ing lead­er­ship as the tran­si­tion hap­pens.

Look­ing ahead, Bryan ex­pressed can­did fears that the agency may not end up pulling cell or gene ther­a­pies quick­ly when ap­proved un­der the ac­cel­er­at­ed path­way, and even when there might be not enough ev­i­dence of ef­fi­ca­cy from the con­fir­ma­to­ry tri­al.

He said he does think the ac­cel­er­at­ed path­way, which has on­ly been used once so far for a cell/gene ther­a­py, will be fre­quent­ly used and that the con­fir­ma­to­ry stud­ies could take years to con­firm ben­e­fit, es­pe­cial­ly if it’s a slow­ly de­vel­op­ing dis­ease.

“We’re go­ing to get in­to trou­ble with ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval for gene ther­a­pies if it takes years to tell us if some­thing works,” Bryan said. “Be­cause then that means it takes years to tell us if it doesn’t work.”

Forge Bi­o­log­ics’ cGMP Com­pli­ant and Com­mer­cial­ly Vi­able Be­spoke Affin­i­ty Chro­matog­ra­phy Plat­form

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Feng Zhang (Susan Walsh/AP Images)

In search of new way to de­liv­er gene ed­i­tors, CRISPR pi­o­neer turns to mol­e­c­u­lar sy­ringes

Bug bacteria are ruthless.

Some soil bacteria have evolved tiny, but deadly injection systems that attach to insect cells, perforate them and release toxins inside — killing a bug in just a few days’ time. Scientists, on the other hand, want to leverage that system to deliver medicines.

In a paper published Wednesday in Nature, MIT CRISPR researcher Feng Zhang and his lab describe how they engineered these syringes made by bacteria to deliver potential therapies like toxins that kill cancer cells and gene editors. With the help of an AI program, they developed syringes that can load proteins of their choice and selectively target human cells.

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Luke Miels, GSK chief commercial officer

GSK picks up Scynex­is' FDA-ap­proved an­ti­fun­gal drug for $90M up­front

GSK is dishing out $90 million cash to add an antifungal drug to its commercial portfolio, in a deal spotlighting the pharma giant’s growing focus on infectious diseases.

The upfront will lock in an exclusive license to Scynexis’ Brexafemme, which was approved in 2021 to treat a yeast infection known as vulvovaginal candidiasis, except in China and certain other countries where Scynexis already out-licensed the drug.

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Mathai Mammen, FogPharma's next CEO

Math­ai Mam­men hands in J&J's R&D keys to lead Greg Ver­dine’s Fog­Phar­ma 

In the early 1990s, Mathai Mammen was a teaching assistant in Greg Verdine’s Science B46 course at Harvard. In June, the former R&D head at Johnson & Johnson will succeed Verdine as CEO, president and chair of FogPharma, the same month the seven-year-old biotech kickstarts its first clinical trial.

After leading R&D at one of the largest drugmakers in the world, taking the company through more than half a dozen drug approvals in the past few years, not to mention a Covid-19 vaccine race, Mammen departed J&J last month and will take the helm of a Cambridge, MA biotech attempting to go after what Verdine calls the “true emperor of all oncogenes” — beta-catenin.

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See­los Ther­a­peu­tics 'tem­porar­i­ly' stops study in rare neu­ro dis­or­der for busi­ness rea­sons

Microcap biotech Seelos Therapeutics is halting enrollment of its study in spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 (also known as Machado-Joseph disease) because of “financial considerations,” and in order to focus on other studies, the company said today, adding that the pause would be temporary.

The study will continue with the patients who have already enrolled, and the data from them will be used to decide whether to continue enrolling others in the future.

FDA ap­proves Nar­can opi­oid over­dose re­ver­sal spray for over-the-counter sale

The FDA today approved Emergent BioSolutions’ Narcan brand naloxone nasal spray for over-the-counter sales. The nod was expected and comes on the heels of a unanimous 19-0 advisory committee vote in favor of approval last month.

The move to OTC means the opioid overdose reversal agent will now be available on grocery, convenience and gas stations shelves, as well as potentially for purchase online.

CSL CEO Paul McKenzie (L) and CMO Bill Mezzanotte

Q&A: New­ly-mint­ed CSL chief ex­ec­u­tive Paul McKen­zie and chief med­ical of­fi­cer Bill Mez­zan­otte

Paul McKenzie took over as CEO of Australian pharma giant CSL this month, following in the footsteps of long-time CSL vet Paul Perreault.

With an eye on mRNA, and quickly commercializing its new, $3.5 million-per-shot gene therapy for hemophilia B, McKenzie and chief medical officer Bill Mezzanotte answered some questions from Endpoints News this afternoon about where McKenzie is going to take the company and what advances may be coming to market from CSL’s pipeline. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Boehringer re­ports ro­bust sales led by type 2 di­a­betes and pul­monary drugs, promis­es more to come high­light­ing obe­si­ty

Boehringer Ingelheim reported human pharma sales of €18.5 billion on Wednesday, led by type 2 diabetes and heart failure drug Jardiance and pulmonary fibrosis med Ofev. Jardiance sales reached €5.8 billion, growing 39% year over year, while Ofev took in €3.2 billion, notching its own 20.6% annual jump.

However, Boehringer is also looking ahead with its pipeline, estimating “In the next seven years the company expects about 20 regulatory approvals in human pharma.”

Blue­bird to miss Q1 dead­line for lo­vo-cel fil­ing, shares sliced

Bluebird bio had expected to submit a BLA for its sickle cell disease gene therapy lovotibeglogene autotemcel, or lovo-cel, by Friday. Now, that deadline is getting punted for at least a couple of weeks.

CEO Andrew Obenshain detailed the update during the company’s full-year earnings call Wednesday morning after the gene therapy specialist reported the development in its Q4 and 2022 report.

“We will likely miss the Q1 2023 submission goal,” Obenshain said, noting the application is fully written and ready to go. But bluebird is still waiting on FDA feedback for the company’s CMC module submitted in early March.