Should J&J win an OK for a flawed de­pres­sion drug af­ter no­table tri­al fail­ures? FDA re­view of­fers a path for­ward

Should the FDA ig­nore its gold stan­dard and ap­prove J&J’s top drug prospect es­ke­t­a­mine with­out sol­id sup­port­ing ev­i­dence from two well-con­trolled stud­ies? Even af­ter it failed in oth­er stud­ies and presents some se­ri­ous safe­ty is­sues to deal with?

In an in­ter­nal re­view post­ed on­line this morn­ing, reg­u­la­tors posed those ques­tions to an ex­pert com­mit­tee this morn­ing pick­ing up the phar­ma gi­ant’s pitch for their ver­sion of the par­ty drug ke­t­a­mine. Their an­swer may well in­flu­ence the en­tire field of de­pres­sion drug re­search, where fail­ures are far more com­mon than suc­cess.

J&J has a lot rid­ing on this one. The phar­ma gi­ant has tapped es­ke­t­a­mine as one of its top late-stage ef­forts, putting it in a line­up of po­ten­tial block­busters the com­pa­ny is push­ing to beef up rev­enue.

The agency has al­ready blessed J&J with its break­through ther­a­py des­ig­na­tion for es­ke­t­a­mine, im­pressed by the mid-stage da­ta that was pro­duced to show how its in­tranasal ther­a­py brought swift re­lief to pa­tients suf­fer­ing from deep de­pres­sion.

That as­pect of the drug is well known. Ke­t­a­mine — known in par­ty cir­cles as Spe­cial K  — is a horse tran­quil­iz­er that al­so has pro­duced a fast ef­fect in a long range of aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies over the years. In com­ing up with its own ver­sion, J&J is look­ing to keep the swift im­pact and lose the hal­lu­cino­genic qual­i­ties that make it a con­trolled sub­stance.

De­pres­sion, though, is a mass mar­ket, and the bar on an ap­proval is high, as Richard Pops could tell you af­ter Alk­er­mes was re­peat­ed­ly slapped down on ‘5461. An­ti­de­pres­sants on the mar­ket, though, are of­ten used ran­dom­ly, in se­quence, to find one that can pro­duce an ef­fect — of­ten tak­ing weeks to be­gin work­ing.

For its stud­ies, J&J re­searchers re­cruit­ed heav­i­ly pre-treat­ed pa­tients in des­per­ate need of a ther­a­py. They were start­ed on a new an­ti­de­pres­sant plus es­ke­t­a­mine, fig­ur­ing that an­ti­de­pres­sants usu­al­ly act so slow­ly it wouldn’t in­ter­fere with es­ke­t­a­mine’s fast ac­tion.

As the re­view notes, J&J has pos­i­tive re­sults from “the flex­i­ble-dose tri­al in adults younger than 65 years of age and the ran­dom­ized with­draw­al study.” With­draw­al stud­ies, though, are gen­er­al­ly not rec­og­nized as a well con­trolled study that qual­i­fies as one of the 2 typ­i­cal­ly need­ed stud­ies for an ap­proval.

Then there were the fail­ures — which, by the way, are quite com­mon in de­pres­sion. One rea­son why J&J ran 5 stud­ies is to give them­selves bet­ter odds at suc­cess, rather than re­strict­ing them­selves to 2 piv­otals.

In the fixed-dose study of adults younger than 65 years of age, the pre­spec­i­fied analy­sis plan dic­tat­ed that ef­fi­ca­cy of the 84-mg dose would be eval­u­at­ed first, fol­lowed by eval­u­a­tion of the 56-mg dose. How­ev­er, the 84-mg dose did not sep­a­rate from place­bo and the test­ing se­quence end­ed there. The geri­atric study in­clud­ed flex­i­ble dos­es rang­ing from 28 to 84 mg; the ef­fect of es­ke­t­a­mine in the com­bined dose group was not sta­tis­ti­cal­ly su­pe­ri­or to place­bo (1-sided p = 0.029).

The safe­ty pro­file is al­so far from be­nign, in­clud­ing se­da­tion, dis­so­cia­tive be­hav­ior and in­creased blood pres­sure as pri­ma­ry con­cerns. And none of that was new to the R&D team when they start­ed the work.

To get an OK here will al­so clear­ly re­quire a de­tailed risk mit­i­ga­tion plan, and the FDA wants its ex­perts to weigh in on that as well. The pro­posed REMS in­cludes 2 hours of mon­i­tor­ing af­ter the drug is giv­en to the pa­tient. There will be no dis­tri­b­u­tion of the drug to pa­tients — to avoid abuse — and the plan now is to in­clude a pa­tient reg­istry to track risks.

The FDA’s in­ter­nal re­view nei­ther sug­gests an ap­proval is war­rant­ed or that the pan­el should vote no. The agency has al­ready proved its will­ing­ness to forego the 2-tri­al stan­dard, at least in oth­er dis­eases. The big ques­tion is whether the ex­perts will go for a new and clear­ly im­per­fect drug to add for a group of pa­tients with nowhere else to turn. Un­der those cir­cum­stances, J&J seems to have pret­ty good odds of suc­cess in a field bet­ter known for re­peat­ed set­backs.

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His­toric drug pric­ing re­forms pass; Pfiz­er ac­quires GBT; The long search for non-opi­oid pain drugs; 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.

The Endpoints Weekly has officially crossed the 60,000 mark on subscribers — thanks to all of your support. As the editorial team grows, we’ve been able to do a lot more, with many of those on display this week. Be sure to check out Lei Lei Wu’s deep dive on pain R&D. If you missed it, you may also rewatch her companion panel here.

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Gold for adults, sil­ver for in­fants: Pfiz­er's Pre­vnar 2.0 head­ed to FDA months af­ter Mer­ck­'s green light

Pfizer was first to the finish line for the next-gen pneumococcal vaccine in adults, but Merck beat its rival with a jab for children in June.

Now, two months after Merck’s 15-valent Vaxneuvance won the FDA stamp of approval for kids, Pfizer is out with some late-stage data on its 20-valent shot for infants.

Known as Prevnar 20 for adults, Pfizer’s 20vPnC will head to the FDA by the end of this year for an approval request in infants, the Big Pharma said Friday morning. Discussions with the FDA will occur first and more late-stage pediatric trials are expected to read out soon, informing the regulatory pathway in other countries and regions.

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No­var­tis re­ports two pa­tient deaths af­ter treat­ment with Zol­gens­ma

Two children with spinal muscular atrophy have died after receiving Novartis’ Zolgensma, a gene therapy designed as a one-time treatment for the rare fatal disease.

The deaths, which resulted from acute liver failure, occurred in Russia and Kazakhstan, Novartis confirmed in a statement to Endpoints News. Having notified health authorities across all the markets where Zolgensma is available, it will update the drug label “to specify that fatal acute liver failure has been reported,” a spokesperson wrote.

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Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) (Francis Chung/E&E News/POLITICO via AP Images)

Sen­ate Fi­nance chair con­tin­ues his in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to phar­ma tax­es with re­quests for Am­gen

Amgen is the latest pharma company to appear on the radar of Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is investigating the way pharma companies are using subsidiaries in low- or zero-tax countries to lower their tax bills.

Like its peers Merck, AbbVie and Bristol Myers Squibb, Wyden notes how Amgen uses its Puerto Rico operations to consistently pay tax rates that are substantially lower than the U.S. corporate tax rate of 21%, with an effective tax rate of 10.7% in 2020 and 12.1% in 2021.

FDA ap­proves sec­ond in­di­ca­tion for As­traZeneca and Dai­ichi's En­her­tu in less than a week

AstraZeneca and Daiichi Sankyo’s antibody-drug conjugate Enhertu scored its second approval in less than a week, this time for a subset of lung cancer patients.

Enhertu received accelerated approval on Thursday to treat adults with unresectable or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) whose tumors have activating HER2 (ERBB2) mutations, and who have already received a prior systemic therapy.

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J&J to re­move talc prod­ucts from shelves world­wide, re­plac­ing with corn­starch-based port­fo­lio

After controversially spinning out its talc liabilities and filing for bankruptcy in an attempt to settle 38,000 lawsuits, Johnson & Johnson is now changing up the formula for its baby powder products.

J&J is beginning the transition to an all cornstarch-based baby powder portfolio, the pharma giant announced on Thursday — just months after a federal judge ruled in favor of its “Texas two-step” bankruptcy to settle allegations that its talc products contained asbestos and caused cancer. An appeals court has since agreed to revisit that case.

CSL is gathering its four business units under a unified brand identity strategy (Credit: CSL company site)

CSL brings Se­qirus, Vi­for un­der par­ent um­brel­la brand in iden­ti­ty re­vamp

CSL is gathering its brands under the family name umbrella, renaming its vaccine and newly acquired nephrology specialty businesses with the parent initials.

CSL Seqirus and CSL Vifor join CSL Plasma and CSL Behring as the four now uniformly branded business units of the global biopharma. The Seqirus vaccine division was formed in 2015 with the combination of bioCSL and its purchase of Novartis’ flu vaccine business. CSL picked up Vifor Pharma late last year in an $11.7 billion deal for the nephrology, iron deficiency and cardio-renal drug developer.

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House pass­es his­toric drug pric­ing re­forms, lin­ing up decades-in-the-mak­ing win for Biden and De­moc­rats

The US House of Representatives today voted along party lines (all Dems voted for it), 220-207 to pass new, wide-ranging legislation that will allow Medicare drug price negotiations for the first time ever, and cap seniors’ drug expenses to $2,000 per year and seniors’ insulin costs at $35 per month.

Setting up a major victory for President Joe Biden, representatives returned from their summer recess to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, even as many noted the bill would only modestly reduce inflation.

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