Spark takes a beat­ing as he­mo­phil­ia safe­ty set­backs tor­pe­do stock, bur­nish ri­val Bio­Marin

Every tiny gene ther­a­py study run by a pub­lic biotech look­ing to make a break­through in cur­ing a dis­ease has two crit­i­cal fea­tures. There’s the reg­u­la­to­ry side, where FDA and EMA in­sid­ers need to be per­suad­ed of their po­ten­tial. And there’s the mar­ket side, where a host of an­a­lysts — re­al and self-ap­point­ed so­cial me­dia mavens — are ready to jump on any ad­verse event as a sign of im­pend­ing de­feat.

Spark $ONCE CEO Jeff Mar­raz­zo has seen both sides up close. And his stock price is get­ting ham­mered this morn­ing as the mar­ket ze­roes in on a new up­date on the com­pa­ny’s he­mo­phil­ia A pro­gram this morn­ing over­shad­owed by a se­ri­ous ad­verse event and oth­er set­backs that the an­a­lysts quick­ly pounced on — over­shad­ow­ing the more pos­i­tive da­ta the CEO would pre­fer to fo­cus on.

Now that 12 he­mo­phil­ia A pa­tients have been dosed in their Phase I/II study, Mar­raz­zo says that they’ve been able to track a dose-de­pen­dent re­sponse that per­suad­ed them to move ahead in­to a piv­otal Phase III at the high end: 2×10(12) vg/kg.

“We be­lieve that the to­tal­i­ty of the da­ta sup­ports mov­ing in­to Phase III,” Mar­raz­zo, a very care­ful speak­er, tells me.

Re­searchers have ob­served promis­ing re­spons­es for the first 2 pa­tients in the study for more than a year now; step back, says Mar­raz­zo, and you’ll see that the en­tire dozen pa­tients have had a 97% drop in bleeds and 97% drop in the rate of in­fu­sions that had been need­ed to pro­tect them from bleeds.

From a reg­u­la­to­ry per­spec­tive, that’s a new stan­dard of care to con­sid­er. But here’s where Spark — which is go­ing right up against a more ad­vanced Bio­Marin $BM­RN pro­gram— en­coun­tered se­vere tur­bu­lence on the mar­ket side.

While 5 of the 7 pa­tients in their cho­sen dose arm have ex­pe­ri­enced FVI­II ac­tiv­i­ty lev­els be­tween 16% and 49% — hit­ting their pro­ject­ed range of 12% to 100% for up to 30 weeks — two have had set­backs. Im­mune re­spons­es caused their FVI­II lev­els to drop be­low 5%, forc­ing them to switch to on-de­mand treat­ment. One chose to go in­to the hos­pi­tal for in­fu­sions — a se­ri­ous ad­verse event. There were al­so a num­ber of ALT el­e­va­tions in pa­tients that raised con­cerns.

Of note, across the study, sev­en of the 12 par­tic­i­pants re­ceived a ta­per­ing course of oral steroids in re­sponse to an ala­nine amino­trans­ferase (ALT) el­e­va­tion above pa­tient base­line, de­clin­ing FVI­II lev­els and/or pos­i­tive IFN- en­zyme-linked im­munospots (ELISPOTs). For these sev­en par­tic­i­pants, steroids led to nor­mal­iza­tion of ALT and ELISPOTs. For all but the two above men­tioned 2×1012 vg/kg co­hort par­tic­i­pants, oral steroids led to sta­bi­liza­tion of tar­get FVI­II lev­els.

Spark’s shares plunged 29% af­ter the re­lease, which in­cludes its Q2 num­bers, hit the wire. Bio­Marin’s stock, mean­while, is up about 6.5%.

Any­time you run a Phase I/II study of a new ther­a­py like this, says the CEO, you have some learn­ing to do about safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy. Even with the set­backs, he adds, the two pa­tients have had good clin­i­cal out­comes, with a dra­mat­ic drop in bleeds and in­fu­sions. And with what they’ve learned from their work on he­mo­phil­ia A as well as their close­ly-watched he­mo­phil­ia B pro­gram, he added, there’s good rea­son to be­lieve they can do bet­ter in Phase III.

Up to now, though, Spark has con­tin­ued to run in­to prob­lems with in­vestors whose first re­ac­tion is to com­pare their he­mo­phil­ia A pro­gram with Bio­Marin’s. And the Bio­Marin team’s per­for­mance has been win­ning ku­dos for a sol­id set of re­spons­es in a small group of pa­tients. Mar­raz­zo al­so likes to point out that their ri­val’s per­for­mance hasn’t been per­fect ei­ther, but he’s not un­aware that the mar­ket sees this as es­sen­tial­ly a head-to-head af­fair — even if there’s no ac­tu­al head-to-head study un­der­way.

Mar­raz­zo’s view: “We’re in the ear­ly in­nings of a long game. We be­lieve with a stan­dard­ized ap­proach it will sup­port the pro­gram as we move for­ward…We’re all learn­ing this as we go,” he adds, not­ing that Spark is in a “very com­pet­i­tive race.”

He’ll be hold­ing on to that thought to­day as the mar­ket re­acts.


Im­age: Jeff Mar­raz­zo at an event in 2015. OPH­THAL­MOL­O­GY IN­NO­VA­TION SUM­MIT

John Reed at JPM 2019. Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News

Sanofi's John Reed con­tin­ues to re­or­ga­nize R&D, cut­ting 466 jobs while boost­ing can­cer, gene ther­a­py re­search

The R&D reorganization inside Sanofi is continuing, more than a year after the pharma giant brought in John Reed to head the research arm of the Paris-based company.
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The top 10 block­buster drugs in the late-stage pipeline — Eval­u­ate adds 6 new ther­a­pies to heavy-hit­ter list

Vertex comes in for a substantial amount of criticism for its no-holds-barred tactical approach toward wresting the price it wants for its commercial drugs in Europe. But the flip side of that coin is a highly admired R&D and commercial operation that regularly wins kudos from analysts for their ability to engineer greater cash flow from the breakthrough drugs they create.

Both aspects needed for success in this business are on display in the program backing Vertex’s triple for cystic fibrosis. VX-659/VX-445 + Tezacaftor + Ivacaftor — it’s been whittled down to 445 now — was singled out by Evaluate Pharma as the late-stage therapy most likely to win the crown for drug sales in 5 years, with a projected peak revenue forecast of $4.3 billion.

The latest annual list, which you can see here in their latest world preview, includes a roster of some of the most closely watched development programs in biopharma. And Evaluate has added 6 must-watch experimental drugs to the top 10 as drugs fail or go on to a first approval. With apologies to the list maker, I revamped this to rank the top 10 by projected 2024 sales, instead of Evaluate's net present value rankings.

It's how we roll at Endpoints News.

Here is a quick summary of the rest of the top 10:

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How small- to mid-sized biotechs can adopt pa­tient cen­tric­i­ty in their on­col­o­gy tri­als

By Lucy Clos­sick Thom­son, Se­nior Di­rec­tor of On­col­o­gy Pro­ject Man­age­ment, Icon

Clin­i­cal tri­als in on­col­o­gy can be cost­ly and chal­leng­ing to man­age. One fac­tor that could re­duce costs and re­duce bar­ri­ers is har­ness­ing the pa­tient voice in tri­al de­sign to help ac­cel­er­ate pa­tient en­roll­ment. Now is the time to adopt pa­tient-cen­tric strate­gies that not on­ly fo­cus on pa­tient needs, but al­so can main­tain cost ef­fi­cien­cy.

In­vestor day prep at Mer­ck in­cludes a new strat­e­gy to pick up the pace on M&A — re­port

Mer­ck’s re­cent deals to buy up two bolt-on biotechs — Ti­los and Pelo­ton — weren’t an aber­ra­tion. In­stead, both ac­qui­si­tions mark a new strat­e­gy to beef up its dom­i­nant can­cer drug op­er­a­tions cen­tered on Keytru­da while look­ing to ad­dress grow­ing con­cerns that too many of its eggs are in the one I/O bas­ket for their PD-1 pro­gram. And Mer­ck is go­ing af­ter more small- and mid-sized buy­outs to calm those fears.

John Chiminski, Catalent CEO - File Photo

'It's a growth play': Catal­ent ac­quires Bris­tol-My­er­s' Eu­ro­pean launch pad, ex­pand­ing glob­al CD­MO ops

Catalent is staying on the growth track.

Just two months after committing $1.2 billion to pick up Paragon and take a deep dive into the sizzling hot gene therapy manufacturing sector, the CDMO is bouncing right back with a deal to buy out Bristol-Myers’ central launchpad for new therapies in Europe, acquiring a complex in Anagni, Italy, southwest of Rome, that will significantly expand its capacity on the continent.

There are no terms being offered, but this is no small deal. The Anagni campus employs some 700 staffers, and Catalent is planning to go right in — once the deal closes late this year — with a blueprint to build up the operations further as they expand on oral solid, biologics, and sterile product manufacturing and packaging.

This is an uncommon deal, Catalent CEO John Chiminski tells me. But it offers a shortcut for rapid growth that cuts years out of developing a green fields project. That’s time Catalent doesn’t have as the industry undergoes unprecedented expansion around the world.

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Arc­turus ex­pands col­lab­o­ra­tion, adding $30M cash; Ku­ra shoots for $100M raise

→  Rare dis­ease play­er Ul­tragenyx $RARE is ex­pand­ing its al­liance with Arc­turus $ARCT, pay­ing $24 mil­lion for eq­ui­ty and an­oth­er $6 mil­lion in an up­front as the two part­ners ex­pand their col­lab­o­ra­tion to in­clude up to 12 tar­gets. “This ex­pand­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion fur­ther so­lid­i­fies our mR­NA plat­form by adding ad­di­tion­al tar­gets and ex­pand­ing our abil­i­ty to po­ten­tial­ly treat more dis­eases,” said Emil Kakkis, the CEO at Ul­tragenyx. “We are pleased with the progress of our on­go­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion. Our most ad­vanced mR­NA pro­gram, UX053 for the treat­ment of Glyco­gen Stor­age Dis­ease Type III, is ex­pect­ed to move in­to the clin­ic next year, and we look for­ward to fur­ther build­ing up­on the ini­tial suc­cess of this part­ner­ship.”

UP­DAT­ED: Chica­go biotech ar­gues blue­bird, Third Rock 'killed' its ri­val, pi­o­neer­ing tha­lassemia gene ther­a­py in law­suit

Blue­bird bio $BLUE chief Nick Leschly court­ed con­tro­ver­sy last week when he re­vealed the com­pa­ny’s be­ta tha­lassemia treat­ment will car­ry a jaw-drop­ping $1.8 mil­lion price tag over a 5-year pe­ri­od in Eu­rope — mak­ing it the plan­et’s sec­ond most ex­pen­sive ther­a­py be­hind No­var­tis’ $NVS fresh­ly ap­proved spinal mus­cu­lar at­ro­phy ther­a­py, Zol­gens­ma, at $2.1 mil­lion. A Chica­go biotech, mean­while, has been fum­ing at the side­lines. In a law­suit filed ear­li­er this month, Er­rant Gene Ther­a­peu­tics al­leged that blue­bird and ven­ture cap­i­tal group Third Rock un­law­ful­ly prised a vi­ral vec­tor, de­vel­oped in part­ner­ship with the Memo­r­i­al Sloan Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter (MSK), from its grasp, and thwart­ed the de­vel­op­ment of its sem­i­nal gene ther­a­py.

Neil Woodford. Woodford Investment Management via YouTube

Wood­ford braces po­lit­i­cal storm as UK fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tors scru­ti­nize fund sus­pen­sion

The shock of Neil Wood­ford’s de­ci­sion to block with­drawals for his flag­ship fund is still rip­pling through the rest of his port­fo­lio — and be­yond. Un­der po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, UK fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tors are now tak­ing a hard look while in­vestors con­tin­ue to flee.

In a re­sponse let­ter to an MP, the Fi­nan­cial Con­duct Au­thor­i­ty re­vealed that it’s opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to the sus­pen­sion fol­low­ing months of en­gage­ment with Link Fund So­lu­tions, which tech­ni­cal­ly del­e­gat­ed Wood­ford’s firm to man­age its funds.

Gilead baits new al­liance with $45M up­front, div­ing in­to the busy pro­tein degra­da­tion field

Gilead is jump­ing on board the pro­tein degra­da­tion band­wag­on. And they’re turn­ing to a low-pro­file Third Rock start­up for the ex­per­tise. But if you were look­ing for a trans­for­ma­tion­al deal to kick up fresh en­thu­si­asm for Gilead, you’ll have to re­main pa­tient.

This one will have a long way to go be­fore they get in­to the clin­ic.

The big biotech said Wednes­day morn­ing that it is pay­ing $45 mil­lion up­front and re­serv­ing a whop­ping $2.3 bil­lion in biotech bucks if San Fran­cis­co-based Nurix can point the way to new can­cer ther­a­pies, as well as drugs for oth­er, un­spec­i­fied dis­eases.