Pfiz­er, Mer­ck KGaA score a land­mark FDA OK for check­point con­tender avelum­ab

Lu­ciano Ros­set­ti, Mer­ck Serono

Mer­ck KGaA and Pfiz­er have done it.

The bio­phar­ma part­ners came away with their first FDA ap­proval of the check­point in­hibitor avelum­ab, mak­ing it the fourth drug in this cat­e­go­ry to make it to the mar­ket. They beat As­traZeneca, which will now an­gle for its first ap­proval of dur­val­um­ab as the 5th check­point.

The FDA gave out its ap­proval for Merkel cell car­ci­no­ma un­der an ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval process. The ther­a­py, the first for a rare form of skin can­cer, has al­so been giv­en break­through drug sta­tus. The drug is cur­rent­ly in 30 clin­i­cal pro­grams as the two play­ers look to wedge their way in­to a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar mar­ket for drugs that are gain­ing wide use in treat­ing can­cer.

The ap­proval marks an­oth­er big ad­vance for Pfiz­er, which paid $850 mil­lion up­front to part­ner with Ger­many’s Mer­ck — a record sum. The ap­proval of this an­ti-PD-L1 IgG1 mon­o­clon­al an­ti­body al­so marks a ma­jor win for Mer­ck KGaA, which has suf­fered through more than a decade with­out a block­buster OK. Mer­ck KGaA al­so came away with a pack­age of reg­u­la­to­ry and com­mer­cial mile­stones on avelum­ab worth up to $2 bil­lion when it tied up with Pfiz­er in 2014.

The ther­a­py will be sold as Baven­cio. A spokesper­son for Pfiz­er said the drug will cost $13,000 a month whole­sale — ahead of pay­er dis­counts.

The new ap­proval marks just how quick­ly the FDA can move when it wants to. The OK is based on a sin­gle arm study in­clud­ing 88 pa­tients. Of the 88 pa­tients who re­ceived Baven­cio in the tri­al, says the FDA, 33% ex­pe­ri­enced com­plete or par­tial shrink­age of their tu­mors. The re­sponse last­ed for more than six months in 86% of re­spond­ing pa­tients and more than 12 months in 45% of re­spond­ing pa­tients.

Not on­ly was avelum­ab a big suc­cess as a check­point, the de­vel­op­ment pro­gram from start to first ap­proval was ex­e­cut­ed swift­ly.

“Three-and-a-half years af­ter the first-in-hu­man dose es­ca­la­tion stud­ies, we are get­ting our first ap­proval,” says Lu­ciano Ros­set­ti, the head of R&D at Mer­ck Serono. And don’t ex­pect any­one to start sit­ting on lau­rels. Check­point in­hi­bi­tion is a big field, and the Pfiz­er/Mer­ck KGaA team plan to make their mark as the pi­o­neers divvy up lead­er­ship roles in a wide ar­ray of can­cers.

As­traZeneca re­jigged its de­vel­op­ment cam­paign for the next check­point in the pipeline, re­ly­ing heav­i­ly on its work in com­bin­ing it with the CT­LA-4 check­point treme­li­mum­ab to try and leapfrog the fast mov­ing trio in the lead: Mer­ck, Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb and Roche/Genen­tech. They’ll be star­ing down some of the biggest ri­vals in the in­dus­try in a make-or-beak ef­fort to dis­tin­guish its R&D op­er­a­tions, which has had sev­er­al suc­cess­es in can­cer but con­tin­ues to be plagued by set­backs in the clin­ic and at the FDA.

You can add Mer­ck KGaA to the list now.

“You need to have a strong PD1/ PD-L1 to an­chor com­bi­na­tions for oth­er as­sets,” Ros­set­ti tells me. And now they have one ap­proved and en­ter­ing the mar­ket.

The FDA ac­cept­ed their ap­pli­ca­tion for urothe­lial car­ci­no­ma just a few weeks ago, and Ros­set­ti says they’re push­ing hard on ovar­i­an, gas­tric and lung can­cer work that could pave the way for near-term ap­provals.

“To be prac­ti­cal,” he adds, “the biggest op­por­tu­ni­ty is in non-small cell lung can­cer.” One of those big op­por­tu­ni­ties is demon­strat­ing an ef­fect in low PD-L1 ex­pressers with re­searchers al­so ex­plor­ing high in­ten­si­ty ther­a­py for high ex­pressers.

Ros­set­ti, though, is care­ful to of­fer no big promis­es on what the da­ta will show. He’s acute­ly aware that when they mod­i­fied the lung can­cer study, the com­pa­ny was gam­bling on a dis­ease that proved a dis­as­ter for Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb and a chance for Mer­ck to leap ahead of the pack.

The first thing that Ros­set­ti did when he was named R&D chief in 2014 was to fo­cus the pipeline, get­ting rid of 13 pro­grams so they could con­cen­trate on a few se­lect ef­forts like avelum­ab. Now he says the com­pa­ny is in­ter­est­ed in do­ing a few deals to help beef up its fo­cus on com­bi­na­tions and more. But they’ll be very strate­gic about launch­ing new tri­als.

“While skin can­cer is one of the most com­mon can­cers, pa­tients with a rare form called Merkel cell can­cer have not had an ap­proved treat­ment op­tion un­til now,” said Richard Paz­dur, MD, act­ing di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Hema­tol­ogy and On­col­o­gy Prod­ucts in the FDA’s Cen­ter for Drug Eval­u­a­tion and Re­search and di­rec­tor of the FDA’s On­col­o­gy Cen­ter of Ex­cel­lence. “The sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty con­tin­ues to make ad­vances tar­get­ing the body’s im­mune sys­tem mech­a­nisms for the treat­ment of var­i­ous types of can­cer. These ad­vance­ments are lead­ing to new ther­a­pies—even in rare forms of can­cer where treat­ment op­tions are lim­it­ed or non-ex­is­tent.”

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

UP­DAT­ED: Boehringer nabs FDA's first in­ter­change­abil­i­ty des­ig­na­tion for its Hu­mi­ra com­peti­tor — but will it mat­ter?

The FDA late Friday awarded Boehringer Ingelheim the first interchangeability designation for its Humira biosimilar Cyltezo, meaning that when it launches in July 2023, pharmacists will be able to automatically substitute the Boehringer’s version for AbbVie’s mega-blockbuster without a doctor’s input.

The designation will likely give Boehringer, which first won approval for Cyltezo in 2017, the leg up on a crowded field of Humira competitors.

Bio­gen hit by ALS set­back with PhI­II fail­ure for tofersen — but fol­lows a fa­mil­iar strat­e­gy high­light­ing the pos­i­tive

Patients and analysts waiting to hear Sunday how Biogen’s SOD1-ALS drug tofersen fared in Phase III didn’t have to wait long for the top-line result they were all waiting for. The drug failed the primary endpoint on significantly improving the functional and neurologic decline of patients over 28 weeks as well as the extension period for continued observation.

In fact, there was very little difference in response.

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Jeffrey Nau, Oyster Point Pharma CEO

FDA OKs an in­haled ver­sion of smok­ing ces­sa­tion drug Chan­tix — for a com­mon eye dis­ease

Oyster Point Pharma now has its first FDA-approved product — Tyrvaya. And the biotech has taken a unique route to get there by using an old drug with a storied past.

The New Jersey biotech announced this morning that the FDA has approved their nasal spray product for dry eye disease on Friday — the first nasal spray to be approved for the disease. The product’s active ingredient is 0.03 mg of varenicline, also known as smoking cessation aid Chantix.

Sheldon Koenig, Esperion CEO

Es­pe­ri­on gets out the bud­get ax, chop­ping 170 staffers as its big drug launch sput­ters

Esperion’s executive team spent years insisting that they had found the sweet spot in the market for their cholesterol drug. But that strategy has soured badly, and after struggling to sell its heart disease pill for more than a year, the biotech says it will cut about 40% of its staff over the next few weeks.

The layoffs will take place across the board, from sales and marketing to R&D, CEO Sheldon Koenig told Endpoints News on Monday. While the chief executive declined to elaborate on how many employees will be affected, an SEC filing stated that approximately 170 staffers are on the chopping block.

Two drug­mak­ers hit with PDU­FA date de­lays from FDA amid back­log of in­spec­tions

As the FDA is weighed down with more and more pandemic responsibilities, the agency is beginning to miss PDUFA dates with more frequency too. Two different companies on Monday said they received notices that the FDA has not completed their drug reviews on time.

The review of an NDA for Avadel Pharmaceuticals’ candidate treatment for narcolepsy is not coming this month, the company said, and the review of UCB’s BLA for bimekizumab, used to treat moderate to severe plaque psoriasis, will miss its target date as well.

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Reshma Kewalramani, Vertex CEO (YouTube)

Ver­tex gets much-need­ed win with ‘ex­tra­or­di­nary’ first pa­tient re­sults on po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure

Vertex said Monday that the first patient dosed with its cell therapy for type 1 diabetes saw their need for insulin injections vanish almost entirely, a key early step in the decades-long effort to develop a curative treatment for the chronic disease.

The patient, who had suffered five potentially life-threatening hypoglycemic — or low blood sugar — episodes in the year before the therapy, was injected with synthetic insulin-producing cells. After 90 days, the patient’s new cells produced insulin steadily and ramped up their insulin production after a meal like normal cells do, as measured by a standard biomarker for insulin production.

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Covid-19 vac­cine boost­ers earn big thumbs up, but Mod­er­na draws ire over world sup­ply; What's next for Mer­ck’s Covid pill?; The C-suite view on biotech; 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.

You may remember that at the beginning of this year, Endpoints News set a goal to go broader and deeper. We are still working towards that, and are excited to share that Beth Snyder Bulik will be joining us on Monday to cover all things pharma marketing. You can sign up for her weekly Endpoints MarketingRx newsletter in your reader profile.

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No­var­tis de­vel­op­ment chief John Tsai: 'We go deep in the new plat­form­s'

During our recent European Biopharma Summit, I talked with Novartis development chief John Tsai about his experiences over the 3-plus years he’s been at the pharma giant. You can read the transcript below or listen to the exchange in the link above.

John Carroll: I followed your career for quite some time. You’ve had more than 20 years in big pharma R&D and you’ve obviously seen quite a lot. I really was curious about what it was like for you three and a half years ago when you took over as R&D chief at Novartis. Obviously a big move, a lot of changes. You went to work for the former R&D chief of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, who had his own track record there. So what was the biggest adjustment when you went into this position?

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