Se­nior FDA of­fi­cials warned that ap­prov­ing $300,000 Duchenne drug will low­er agency stan­dards

In the end, Sarep­ta did many things wrong when it came to de­vel­op­ing a new drug for Duchenne mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy. But it got one very im­por­tant part right. The biotech, with the sup­port of a le­gion of ad­vo­cates in the pa­tient com­mu­ni­ty, won over Janet Wood­cock to their side ear­ly on.

The pow­er­ful CDER di­rec­tor pushed for an ap­proval even in the face of a heat­ed de­bate in­side the FDA, as se­nior of­fi­cials weighed in in op­po­si­tion to her stand. The act­ing chief sci­en­tist at the agency, Lu­ciana Bo­rio, ar­gued that an ap­proval would low­er the agency’s stan­dards and en­cour­age oth­er de­vel­op­ers to pur­sue the same kind of lob­by­ing cam­paigns em­ployed at Sarep­ta. And she ac­cused Sarep­ta of act­ing ir­re­spon­si­bly by know­ing­ly push­ing “mis­lead­ing” in­for­ma­tion about the drug. El­lis Unger, di­rec­tor of the of­fice of drug eval­u­a­tion, scoffed at the da­ta Sarep­ta of­fered, call­ing the drug a “sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly el­e­gant place­bo.”

But FDA Com­mis­sion­er Robert Califf re­fused to over­rule Wood­cock’s de­ci­sion to OK eteplirsen, de­spite shar­ing some of the ma­jor ob­jec­tions raised by of­fi­cials who op­posed putting this drug on the mar­ket at Sarep­ta’s price of $300,000 a year.

Califf’s sum­ma­ry re­view of the ex­tra­or­di­nary show­down over eteplirsen point to prob­lems that would have eas­i­ly killed prac­ti­cal­ly any oth­er mar­ket­ing ap­pli­ca­tion. But with the cen­ter di­rec­tor tak­ing a pas­sion­ate stand in fa­vor of the drug, the com­mis­sion­er says he de­cid­ed that he would de­fer to Wood­cock in view of his lack of tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise in the mat­ter and a suf­fi­cient record of ev­i­dence to war­rant its move in­to the mar­ket.

Both Unger and Bo­rio op­posed Wood­cock’s de­ci­sion to grant an ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval for eteplirsen, ac­cord­ing to the Sep­tem­ber 16 memo from Califf as well as their own mem­os. Califf set out to de­ter­mine if the FDA was sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er­ing the bar for an ap­proval, but ul­ti­mate­ly de­cid­ed that Wood­cock was pur­su­ing a well es­tab­lished track record for be­ing will­ing to take tough, eth­i­cal stands in­side the agency, rather than buck­ling to a lob­by­ing cam­paign.

Ac­cord­ing to Bo­rio, who says that Wood­cock was lean­ing to­ward an OK in 2014, an ap­proval of this flawed ap­pli­ca­tion may set a dan­ger­ous prece­dent that will en­cour­age des­per­ate pa­tients to mount a fu­ri­ous as­sault in fa­vor of oth­er drug ap­provals. Her po­si­tion, out­lined in the memo:

Grant­i­ng ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval here on the ba­sis of the da­ta sub­mit­ted could make mat­ters worse for pa­tients with no ex­ist­ing mean­ing­ful ther­a­pies — both by dis­cour­ag­ing oth­ers from de­vel­op­ing ef­fec­tive ther­a­pies for DMD and by en­cour­ag­ing oth­er de­vel­op­ers to seek ap­proval for se­ri­ous con­di­tions be­fore they have in­vest­ed the time and re­search nec­es­sary to es­tab­lish whether a prod­uct is like­ly to con­fer clin­i­cal ben­e­fit. If we were to ap­prove eteplirsen with­out sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence of ef­fec­tive­ness, or on the ba­sis of a sur­ro­gate end­point with a triv­ial treat­ment ef­fect, we would quick­ly find our­selves in the po­si­tion of hav­ing to ap­prove a myr­i­ad of in­ef­fec­tive treat­ments for groups of des­per­ate pa­tients.

Unger, who warned that the safe­ty pro­file of eteplirsen is not yet known and that pa­tients tak­ing the drug could die from treat­ment, was scathing in his as­sess­ment of the ther­a­py.

By al­low­ing the mar­ket­ing of an in­ef­fec­tive drug, es­sen­tial­ly a sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly el­e­gant place­bo, thou­sands of pa­tients and their fam­i­lies would be giv­en false hope in ex­change for hard­ship and risk. I ar­gue that this would be un­eth­i­cal and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. There could al­so be sig­nif­i­cant and un­jus­ti­fied fi­nan­cial costs – if not to pa­tients, to so­ci­ety.

And the re­view doc­u­ments in­clud­ed Wood­cock’s ex­tra­or­di­nary ar­gu­ment that Sarep­ta need­ed an ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval to help its stock price, so it could fund ad­di­tion­al work.

She opined that Sarep­ta in par­tic­u­lar “need­ed to be cap­i­tal­ized.” She not­ed that the spon­sor’s stock went down af­ter the AC meet­ing and went up af­ter FDA sent the June 3, 2016 let­ter. Dr. Wood­cock cau­tioned that, if Sarep­ta did not re­ceive ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval for eteplirsen, it would have in­suf­fi­cient fund­ing to con­tin­ue to study eteplirsen and the oth­er sim­i­lar drugs in its pipeline. She stat­ed that, with­out an ap­proval in cas­es such as eteplirsen, pa­tients would aban­don all hope of ap­proval for these types of prod­ucts and would “lapse in­to a po­si­tion of” self-treat­ment.

Sig­nif­i­cant de­fi­cien­cies in the eteplirsen pro­gram, says Califf, in­clude a con­sen­sus that “the poor qual­i­ty of many of the biop­sies and the fail­ure of the spon­sor to im­ple­ment a high-qual­i­ty pro­ce­dure for as­say val­i­da­tion” made it im­pos­si­ble to con­sid­er much of the da­ta in the ap­pli­ca­tion. They all agreed that the drug pro­duced lev­els of dy­s­trophin that were “small com­pared with ex­pec­ta­tions at the out­set of tri­als in hu­mans.”

Sarep­ta “tout­ed” a study that used un­re­li­able mea­sures of the as­say, lead­ing the com­pa­ny to over­state pro­tein ex­pres­sion in fol­low-up biop­sies. That study was de­bunked by FDA ex­perts, Califf says, and should be cor­rect­ed or re­tract­ed. Bo­rio was much more crit­i­cal of Sarep­ta. Her memo states:

I would be re­miss if I did not note that the spon­sor has ex­hib­it­ed se­ri­ous ir­re­spon­si­bil­i­ty by play­ing a role in pub­lish­ing and pro­mot­ing se­lec­tive da­ta dur­ing the de­vel­op­ment of this prod­uct. Not on­ly was there a mis­lead­ing pub­lished ar­ti­cle with re­spect to the re­sults of Study 201/202147 –which has nev­er been re­tract­ed—but Sarep­ta al­so is­sued a press re­lease re­ly­ing on the mis­lead­ing ar­ti­cle and its find­ings.

There is a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­i­ty, the FDA feels, that in­creas­ing the dose would pro­vide enough dy­s­trophin ex­pres­sion, the key bio­mark­er for this dis­ease, to make it work as hoped. But it’s on­ly been test­ed in an­i­mals, nev­er in hu­mans — at least not yet.

And if Sarep­ta had done what the FDA was telling the com­pa­ny to do, says Califf, then they would prob­a­bly al­ready have enough com­pelling da­ta in hand to make a de­ci­sion based on the mer­its of the drug.

Wood­cock ac­tu­al­ly de­cid­ed in fa­vor of an ap­proval on May 4, af­ter tak­ing an “ex­ten­sive and ear­ly in­volve­ment” on the drug, which raised con­cerns about in­ter­fer­ence with “the in­tegri­ty of sci­en­tif­ic re­views” at low­er lev­els in the FDA. Wood­cock com­plet­ed her fi­nal mem­o­ran­dum be­fore Unger had had a chance to com­plete his own.

Once she de­ter­mined her po­si­tion, Wood­cock nev­er budged. Ul­ti­mate­ly, that was enough. What­ev­er else hap­pens, Wood­cock was proved right about Sarep­ta’s stock price. Shares are up 86% in mid-af­ter­noon trad­ing. In a call with an­a­lysts Mon­day af­ter­noon, com­pa­ny of­fi­cials say they will file for an ear­ly ap­proval in Eu­rope be­fore the end of this year.

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.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,000+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

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.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,000+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

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.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,000+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

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.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,000+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

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?

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Scott Struthers, Crinetics CEO

Cri­net­ics spins out ra­dio­phar­ma ef­forts in­to a new com­pa­ny, high­light­ing the grow­ing field­'s al­lure

Largely known for its nonpeptide small molecule research, Crinetics has been keeping its radiopharma work comparatively under wraps. But that changed Monday afternoon as the California biotech spun out a new company focused solely on the burgeoning field.

Crinetics launched Radionetics after the closing bell Monday, the company announced, seeding the new entity with $30 million raised from 5AM Ventures and Frazier Healthcare Partners. Radionetics will start with its own radiopharma-centric platform and a pipeline of 10 programs aimed at solid tumors.

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.