Prothena’s lead drug NEOD001 just im­plod­ed in 2 late-stage stud­ies — and there’s noth­ing left to sal­vage

Prothena’s lead drug has de­ci­sive­ly failed a cru­cial Phase IIb study for rare, sec­ond-line cas­es of AL amy­loi­do­sis. And af­ter con­clud­ing that their Phase III for front­line use is al­so head­ed to fail­ure, the biotech’s ex­ec­u­tive team is scrap­ping the whole pro­gram.

Gene Kin­ney

In a pre­view of the re­sults be­ing re­leased this morn­ing for one of the most close­ly watched cat­a­lysts of Q2, Prothena $PR­TA CEO Gene Kin­ney said the com­pa­ny faced a very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion, and had on­ly one re­al op­tion.

“We are a sci­ence-led com­pa­ny,” Kin­ney told me. “I’m a sci­en­tist my­self.” And when you’re up against some­thing like this, he said, you have to “pay at­ten­tion to the da­ta and take the most ap­pro­pri­ate steps for­ward.”

It’s not pret­ty, and there will be no hunt for sil­ver lin­ings for a drug once reck­oned as a po­ten­tial block­buster worth around $1.5 bil­lion in peak sales. There will be no at­tempt to re­vive the ef­fort.

Prothena’s shares dropped 62% Mon­day morn­ing. And as an­a­lysts’ bleak as­sess­ments hit, things got even worse. By mid-af­ter­noon the stock was down near­ly 70%, wip­ing out close to a bil­lion dol­lars in mar­ket cap af­ter start­ing the day at $1.4 bil­lion.

“We’ve had a large set­back here with this pro­gram,” says the CEO, who is turn­ing to re­view “the most op­ti­mal way of mov­ing for­ward…All of us at Prothena had gen­uine­ly hoped that we had a drug that would help pa­tients suf­fer­ing from this dis­ease.”

Neil Wood­ford

Right now, Prothena plans to bring the Phase III to an end as they look over the fi­nal da­ta. But there’s no ques­tion in Kin­ney’s mind that the tri­als had foundered, with the Phase IIb de­liv­er­ing noth­ing sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant on the pri­ma­ry or sec­ondary end­points. 

Some of those end­points slight­ly fa­vored the drug, oth­ers slight­ly fa­vored the place­bo.

The haz­ard ra­tio in the Phase III tri­al was at 0.84 when they de­cid­ed to drop the ef­fort at the rec­om­men­da­tion of the in­de­pen­dent mon­i­tor­ing board.

The pri­ma­ry end­point of the Phase IIb PRON­TO study was a mea­sure­ment of car­diac best re­sponse us­ing the high­ly re­gard­ed bio­mark­er for NT-proB­NP as a like­ly sur­ro­gate for sur­vival. Prothena had told in­vestors and an­a­lysts that a suc­cess here could trig­ger a re­quest for ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval at the FDA. 

“This is the worst case sce­nario for this pro­gram un­for­tu­nate­ly for PR­TA at this time,” not­ed Jef­feries an­a­lyst Michael Lee.

The re­sults will be a par­tic­u­lar­ly bit­ter pill for Neil Wood­ford to swal­low. The UK in­vestor bet heav­i­ly on Prothena’s suc­cess with NEOD001, reg­u­lar­ly of­fer­ing his en­thu­si­as­tic en­dorse­ment of the com­pa­ny and the team in charge. Now he’ll have to ac­count for an­oth­er painful set­back on the port­fo­lio, af­ter the stock falls far be­low what he paid to buy in.

The bru­tal­ly bad news for in­vestors comes on the heels of a sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward for Prothena. The biotech re­cent­ly signed a rich, pre­clin­i­cal li­cens­ing deal with Cel­gene to beef up its fledg­ling neu­ro­sciences pipeline — with $150 mil­lion in cash tied to it — in­clud­ing an Alzheimer’s pro­gram for tau.

That ef­fort will take the spot­light, along with an­oth­er clin­i­cal pro­gram and the pre­clin­i­cal work un­der way on oth­er drugs.

AL amy­loi­do­sis is a rare con­di­tion that’s di­ag­nosed in about 3,000 peo­ple a year in the US, though it may al­so well be un­der­diag­nosed, ac­cord­ing to Memo­r­i­al Sloan Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter. In the dis­ease, rogue plas­ma cells pro­duce an im­munoglob­u­lin light-chain pro­tein that pro­duces amy­loid, which is de­posit­ed in or­gans and gums the works, ca­pa­ble of se­vere dam­age. 

As there are no drugs ap­proved for the con­di­tion, doc­tors of­ten turn to au­tol­o­gous stem cell trans­plants fol­low­ing chemother­a­py to erad­i­cate the er­rant plas­ma cells. Treat­ment al­so some­times in­volved mul­ti­ple myelo­ma drugs like Vel­cade, with ev­i­dence that carfil­zomib and dara­tu­mum­ab can tamp down on the pro­duc­tion of the plas­ma cells. There are a va­ri­ety of stud­ies now in the clin­ic for myelo­ma drugs in this con­di­tion, but any ded­i­cat­ed drug that can mod­i­fy the dis­ease will find a big mar­ket.

Prothena’s share­hold­ers have had a lot to fret about on this de­vel­op­ment pro­gram. The com­pa­ny’s chief med­ical of­fi­cer, Sarah Noon­berg, abrupt­ly re­signed in Feb­ru­ary — less than a year af­ter the Bio­Marin vet joined Prothena — which in­evitably spurred some buzz on Twit­ter. More sig­nif­i­cant­ly, Sahm Ad­ran­gi’s Ker­ris­dale of­fered up one of their Nas­daq SWAT at­tacks on the drug and the com­pa­ny.

Ker­ris­dale set the chances of suc­cess in these tri­als at 0%.

“Prothena’s car­diac best re­sponse rate is mere­ly a byprod­uct of well-doc­u­ment­ed nat­ur­al vari­ance,” Ker­ris­dale not­ed, “and we be­lieve there is no chance of NEOD001 pro­duc­ing sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant re­sults in its cur­rent Phase 2b and Phase 3 tri­als.”

Next up for Prothena is their ex­per­i­men­tal Parkin­son’s drug, PRX002/RG7935, which is al­lied with Roche. It is their on­ly oth­er clin­i­cal stage pro­gram, fol­low­ing a de­ci­sion last fall to scrap a pro­gram for PRX003. 

Kin­ney says an­oth­er pre­clin­i­cal pro­gram will soon be ad­vanced in­to hu­man stud­ies, and there’s plen­ty of cash on hand. The biotech, which had 125 staffers on hand at the end of 2017, al­so list­ed $422 mil­lion in cash — lat­er aug­ment­ed with Cel­gene’s $150 mil­lion buy-in.

NYU surgeon transplants an engineered pig kidney into the outside of a brain-dead patient (Joe Carrotta/NYU Langone Health)

No, sci­en­tists are not any clos­er to pig-to-hu­man trans­plants than they were last week

Steve Holtzman was awoken by a 1 a.m. call from a doctor at Duke University asking if he could put some pigs on a plane and fly them from Ohio to North Carolina that day. A motorcyclist had gotten into a horrific crash, the doctor explained. He believed the pigs’ livers, sutured onto the patient’s skin like an external filter, might be able to tide the young man over until a donor liver became available.

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: Agenus calls out FDA for play­ing fa­vorites with Mer­ck, pulls cer­vi­cal can­cer BLA at agen­cy's re­quest

While criticizing the FDA for what may be some favoritism towards Merck, Agenus on Friday officially pulled its accelerated BLA for its anti-PD-1 inhibitor balstilimab as a potential second-line treatment for cervical cancer because of the recent full approval for Merck’s Keytruda in the same indication.

The company said the BLA, which was due for an FDA decision by Dec. 16, was withdrawn “when the window for accelerated approval of balstilimab closed,” thanks to the conversion of Keytruda’s accelerated approval to a full approval four months prior to its PDUFA date.

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How to col­lect and sub­mit RWD to win ap­proval for a new drug in­di­ca­tion: FDA spells it out in a long-await­ed guid­ance

Real-world data are messy. There can be differences in the standards used to collect different types of data, differences in terminologies and curation strategies, and even in the way data are exchanged.

While acknowledging this somewhat controlled chaos, the FDA is now explaining how biopharma companies can submit study data derived from real-world data (RWD) sources in applicable regulatory submissions, including new drug indications.

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No­vo CEO Lars Fruer­gaard Jør­gensen on R&D risk, the deal strat­e­gy and tar­gets for gen­der di­ver­si­ty

 

I kicked off our European R&D summit last week with a conversation involving Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen. Novo is aiming to launch a new era of obesity management with a new approval for semaglutide. And Jørgensen had a lot to say about what comes next in R&D, how they manage risk and gender diversity targets at the trendsetting European pharma giant.

John Carroll: I’m here with Lars Jørgensen, the CEO of Novo Nordisk. Lars, it’s been a really interesting year so far with Novo Nordisk, right? You’ve projected a new era of growing sales. You’ve been able to expand on the GLP-1 franchise that was already well established in diabetes now going into obesity. And I think a tremendous number of people are really interested in how that’s working out. You have forecast a growing amount of sales. We don’t know specifically how that might play out. I know a lot of the analysts have different ideas, how those numbers might play out, but that we are in fact embarking on a new era for Novo Nordisk in terms of what the company’s capable of doing and what it’s able to do and what it wants to do. And I wanted to start off by asking you about obesity in particular. Semaglutide has been approved in the United States for obesity. It’s an area of R&D that’s been very troubled for decades. There have been weight loss drugs that have come along. They’ve attracted a lot of attention, but they haven’t actually ever gained traction in the market. My first question is what’s different this time about obesity? What is different about this drug and why do you expect it to work now whereas previous drugs haven’t?

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Marty Duvall, Oncopeptides CEO

On­copep­tides stock craters as it pulls can­cer drug Pepax­to from the mar­ket

Shares of Oncopeptides crashed more than 70% in early Friday trading after the company said it’s pulling its multiple myeloma drug Pepaxto (melphalan flufenamide) from the US market after failing a confirmatory trial. The move will force the company to close its US and EU business units and enact significant layoffs.

The FDA had scheduled an adcomm meeting next Thursday to discuss Pepaxto, which first won accelerated approval in February and costs about $19,000 per course of treatment. The committee was to weigh in on whether the confirmatory trial demonstrated a worse overall survival in the treatment arm compared to the control arm.

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Oc­u­lar Ther­a­peu­tix ham­mered by a PhII fail­ure in dry eye dis­ease — shares tank

Ocular Therapeutix $OCUL has had its ups and downs in the 7 years since it went public. Friday was one of those down days.

The Bedford, MA-based biotech reported that its lead experimental eye drug, OTX-CSI (cyclosporine intracanalicular insert), failed a Phase II trial for dry eye disease. And the stock experienced one of its periodic meltdowns, dropping more than 30% ahead of the bell.

The therapy flat failed the primary endpoint: increased tear production at 12 weeks as measured by the Schirmer’s Test compared to the vehicle control group. And while investigators called out an improvement from baseline in “signs of dry eye disease as measured by total corneal fluorescein staining (CFS) and symptoms of dry eye disease as measured by the visual analogue scale (VAS) eye dryness in subjects treated with the OTX-CSI insert,” it wasn’t statistically significant.

Pfiz­er pitch­es its Covid-19 vac­cine for younger chil­dren ahead of ad­comm next week

Pfizer will present its case to the FDA’s vaccine adcomm next week, seeking authorization for a lower-dose version of its Covid-19 vaccine for kids ages 5 through 12, which the Biden administration said will likely begin rolling out early next month.

Two primary doses of the 10 µg vaccine (the dose for those ages 12 and up is 30 μg) given 3 weeks apart in this group of children “have shown a favorable safety and tolerability profile, robust immune responses against all variants of concern including Delta, and vaccine efficacy of 90.7% against laboratory-confirmed symptomatic COVID-19,” the company said in briefing documents ahead of next Tuesday’s meeting of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee.

Sanofi, Re­gen­eron etch out an­oth­er PhI­II vic­to­ry for Dupix­ent, eas­ing se­vere itch and clear­ing le­sions

Sanofi and Regeneron can boast of another inflammatory disease where Dupixent has proven effective.

The best-selling drug, which targets both IL-4 and IL-13, has delivered a clean sweep in a Phase III trial for prurigo nodularis, a chronic disease characterized by itch so intense that it can affect patients’ sleep and psychology. Thick skin lesions can cover most of the body.

On the primary endpoint, 37% of patients taking Dupixent saw a clinically meaningful reduction in itch compared to 22% of those on placebo (p=0.0216) at week 12. All secondary endpoints were also met, including clearance of skin lesions and improvement in quality of life.