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

Roivant par­lays a $450M chunk of eq­ui­ty in biotech buy­out, grab­bing a com­pu­ta­tion­al group to dri­ve dis­cov­ery work

New Roivant CEO Matt Gline has crafted an all-equity upfront deal to buy out a Boston-based biotech that has been toiling for several years now at building a supercomputing-based computational platform to design new drugs. And he’s adding it to the Erector set of science operations that are being built up to support their network of biotech subsidiaries with an eye to growing the pipeline in a play to create a new kind of pharma company.

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Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck takes a swing at the IL-2 puz­zle­box with a $1.85B play for buzzy Pan­dion and its au­toim­mune hope­fuls

When Roger Perlmutter bid farewell to Merck late last year, the drugmaker perhaps best known now for sales giant Keytruda signaled its intent to take a swing at early-stage novelty with the appointment of discovery head Dean Li. Now, Merck is signing a decent-sized check to bring an IL-2 moonshot into the fold.

Merck will shell out roughly $1.85 billion for Pandion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech hoping to gin up regulatory T cells (Tregs) to treat a range of autoimmune disorders, the drugmaker said Thursday.

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Covid-19 roundup: Mer­ck­'s $356M sup­ply deal on hold as FDA asks for more da­ta; UK stud­ies of­fer more in­for­ma­tion on ef­fi­ca­cy of Pfiz­er/BioN­Tech vac­cine af­ter one dose

Merck is pushing back plans to supply the US government with a Covid-19 drug after the FDA asked for more data to support an emergency use authorization.

The antibody, MK-7110, had looked promising in a Phase III study conducted by OncoImmune before Merck came along and bought the biotech for $425 million. At the interim analysis, investigators looked at data from 203 patients and concluded that a single dose of the drug cut the risk of death or respiratory failure by more than 50% among severe patients. And those taking the drug had a 60% higher chance of improvement in clinical status compared to placebo.

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CEO Fred Aslan (Artiva)

NK cell ther­a­py play­er Arti­va makes some more noise, pulling in $120M Se­ries B less than a month af­ter Mer­ck deal

Not even one month after Big Pharma took notice of Artiva when Merck signed a collaboration worth nearly $2 billion in milestones, the off-the-shelf NK cell biotech already has its next big fundraise.

Artiva returns from the venture well Friday with a $120 million Series B round, money they will use to get their first program into the clinic and to file INDs for another two candidates. The raise marks the latest development in a rapidly expanding footprint for Artiva, which, in addition to the Merck deal last month, has now raised almost $200 million since its Series A last June.

Fatty liver conceptual image, 3D illustration showing fatty liver silhouette made from micrograph of liver steatosis (Shutterstock)

The path to NASH: un­der­stand­ing the role of se­vere obe­si­ty in a com­plex, mul­ti-sys­tem dis­ease

Biotech Voices is a collection of exclusive opinion editorials from some of the leading voices in biopharma on the biggest industry questions today. Think you have a voice that should be heard? Reach out to senior editors Kyle Blankenship and Amber Tong.

We often think a person’s transition from a healthy to a diseased state is binary. But that’s often not the case. In reality, the onset of a disease is not something that occurs overnight, and the majority lie on a continuum that is impacted by a multitude of factors. Some of these factors are in a patient’s control. Others are not.

This is the case in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), two of the most complex diseases that “live” on this proverbial continuum. The clinical onset of NAFLD — and ultimately NASH — is a complex process that is closely related to obesity, insulin resistance and impaired adipose tissue metabolism.

With dust set­tled on ac­tivist at­tack, Lau­rence Coop­er leaves Zio­pharm to a new board

Laurence Cooper has done his part.

In the five years since he left a tenured position at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center to become CEO of Boston-based Ziopharm, he’s steered the small-cap immunotherapy player through patient deaths in trials, clinical holds, short attacks and, most recently, an activist attack on the board.

So when the company has “fantastic news” like an IND clearance for a TCR T cell therapy program, he’s ready to pass on the baton.

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Doug Ingram (file photo)

Why not? Sarep­ta’s third Duchenne MD drug sails to ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval

Sarepta may be running into some trouble with its next-gen gene therapy approach to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But when it comes to antisense oligonucleotides, the well-trodden regulatory path is still leading straight to an accelerated approval for casimersen, now christened Amondys 45.

We just have to wait until 2024 to find out if it works.

Amondys 45’s approval was unceremonious, compared to its two older siblings. There was no controversy within the FDA over approving a drug based on a biomarker rather than clinical benefit, setting up a powerful precedent that still haunts acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock as biotech insiders weighed her potential permanent appointment; no drama like the FDA issuing a stunning rejection only to reverse its decision and hand out an OK four months later, which got more complicated after the scathing complete response letter was published; no anxious tea leaf reading or heated arguments from drug developers and patient advocates who were tired of having corticosteroids as their loved ones’ only (sometimes expensive) option.

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