The 10 most pop­u­lar sto­ries in End­points News — so far in 2017

John Car­roll

Since Ar­salan Arif and I ramped up the main edi­tion of End­points News 16 months ago, we’ve pub­lished more than a mil­lion words on bio­phar­ma R&D.

Tol­stoy, eat your heart out.

This year we’ve in­creased web traf­fic, track­ing close to an av­er­age of 20,000 read­ers per day — with more than 22,000 email sub­scribers — which is con­sid­er­ably high­er than where we start­ed in the mid­dle of 2016.

So what are bio­phar­ma peo­ple read­ing in End­points?

Every Black Fri­day we mark the hol­i­day with our top 10 list of our most pop­u­lar re­ports (here’s last year’s ver­sion). Read­ers vot­ed with their fin­gers, and here are their top 10 sto­ries.

1 Mer­ck was hit hard by a vi­cious cy­ber­at­tack yes­ter­day. Here is what we know.

Pub­lish­er Ar­salan Arif wrote the best-read re­port of the year at End­points News af­ter hear­ing about a glob­al cy­ber­at­tack which blast­ed Mer­ck, caus­ing chaos at the phar­ma gi­ant. Over time, we would hear about hun­dreds of mil­lions in dam­ages, which are still rack­ing up at the com­pa­ny. Mer­ck says it did what it could to pro­tect it­self, but this virus hit hard. Chances are, cy­ber­se­cu­ri­ty has tak­en on a whole new mean­ing at Mer­ck.

2 Top 20 block­buster drugs in the late-stage pipeline — Eval­u­atePhar­ma

If there’s one thing 15 years in the trench­es of biotech re­port­ing has taught me, it’s that in­dus­try read­ers like some in­sights on the big drugs in the late-stage pipeline. It tells us who’s do­ing the best work, which com­pa­nies have the best prospects and where the big bets are be­ing made. There’s a lot more to this than peak sales, but the drugs picked by Eval­u­atePhar­ma rep­re­sent a ver­i­ta­ble trea­sure trove of block­busters worth po­ten­tial­ly more than $30 bil­lion. Check it out.

3 The top 15 spenders in the glob­al drug R&D busi­ness: 2017

Those com­pa­nies that dom­i­nate the late-stage pipeline are al­so typ­i­cal­ly the ones that foot the li­ons’s share of the bill for drug de­vel­op­ment. Last year, the big bill due for the top 15 com­pa­nies’ re­search bud­gets re­sult­ed in a wimpy pay­out, with a big drop in new drug ap­provals, but that’s be­ing sand­wiched be­tween two sol­id years of suc­cess­es at the FDA. I’ve been fol­low­ing this R&D num­ber for a long while now. And while the fo­cus may change and peo­ple are hired and fired, the en­gine of drug de­vel­op­ment over­all re­mains in high gear. It’s al­so true that high gear is not good enough, and that longterm pro­duc­tiv­i­ty is­sue con­tin­ues to haunt the in­dus­try’s fu­ture.

4 British bil­lion­aire Jim Mel­lon and high-pro­file part­ners roll the dice on an an­ti-ag­ing up­start

We are on the cusp of a tidal shift in biotech R&D, with more and more com­pa­nies look­ing to de­vel­op ther­a­pies that can add bet­ter life to your years, and grad­u­al­ly more years to your life. British bil­lion­aire Jim Mel­lon wrote a book on the top­ic, and now he and some close col­leagues are div­ing in di­rect­ly to raise cash and start work. These trends take years to play out, so don’t look for any overnight rev­o­lu­tions in drug R&D. Still, the wheels are turn­ing, and read­ers are pay­ing close at­ten­tion.

5 In stag­ger­ing set­back, tox­ic re­ac­tion kills Cel­lec­tis’ first CAR-T pa­tient, forc­ing tri­al halt

CAR-T has a safe­ty is­sue, as any­one fa­mil­iar with the field knows all too well. Cel­lec­tis is out to make one of these new can­cer ther­a­pies — now craft­ed from pa­tient cells — so they can be made in bulk and tak­en down from the shelf as need­ed. But an ear­ly death helped raise the red flag for this new kind of CAR-T as well. The FDA lift­ed this hold re­cent­ly, al­low­ing Cel­lec­tis to go back in­to the clin­ic, but on­ly af­ter the French biotech came up with a host of new safe­ty mea­sures. Rev­o­lu­tions are nev­er easy. Or safe. This was a time­ly re­minder that those fac­tors re­al­ly nev­er change.

6 The scoop: Marathon’s R&D pro­gram for Duchenne MD drug like­ly came in at a bar­gain base­ment price

This is one of my fa­vorite sto­ries of the year. I’m glad it was one of yours, too. Marathon Phar­ma was try­ing to pull a fast one when it slipped through an ap­pli­ca­tion on an old cheap steroid as an or­phan ther­a­py for Duchenne mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy. Quite a few par­ents pre­ferred de­flaza­cort over a re­al­ly cheap gener­ic al­ter­na­tive, pay­ing around $1,000 a year to get it from a Lon­don sup­pli­er. Ac­cord­ing to Marathon, it had to charge $84,000 a year for its new ther­a­py — point­ing to the big clin­i­cal pro­gram need­ed for the ap­proval. We blew that the­o­ry sky high with some pro­fes­sion­al es­ti­mates of what it re­al­ly cost, and how the com­pa­ny looked to make a killing. The sto­ry blew up, law­mak­ers got in­volved and Marathon de­cid­ed to sell it off and take the mon­ey and run. Now PTC is the proud own­er, and its new price runs along a slid­ing scale based on weight. It’s not re­al­ly cheap­er at all, but the con­tro­ver­sy has blown over — for now.

7 Ter­ri­ble op­tics: As­traZeneca shares take a hit fol­low­ing re­port that CEO So­ri­ot is mov­ing to Te­va

Months lat­er, this head­line still sur­pris­es me. And I wrote it. Pas­cal So­ri­ot had been fight­ing for a turn­around at As­traZeneca for the past 5 years. To re­port­ed­ly be in­ter­est­ed in tak­ing the Te­va job would be an­oth­er way of say­ing ‘so long, suck­ers’ to every­one he man­aged at As­traZeneca. So­ri­ot even­tu­al­ly made it clear that he wasn’t leav­ing As­traZeneca, and even­tu­al­ly Te­va an­nounced it had signed a new CEO. But So­ri­ot nev­er de­nied he dis­cussed the open­ing. And this sto­ry al­ways re­mains in the back of every­one’s heads as As­traZeneca makes a halt­ing jour­ney back from the val­ley of death it’s been in.

8 King can­cer: The top 10 ther­a­peu­tic ar­eas in bio­phar­ma R&D

There’s no doubt that 2017 is the year of can­cer R&D. New projects are peak­ing, break­throughs are gain­ing land­mark ap­provals and more mon­ey than ever has flowed in­to the field. As a re­sult, as we point­ed out in this break­down of R&D projects by ther­a­peu­tic field, there’s now can­cer R&D and every­thing else that is go­ing on. We’ve fol­lowed up with more da­ta points that un­der­score this over­whelm­ing trend. And you can ex­pect to hear a lot more about this as com­pa­nies com­pete over a fi­nite num­ber of pa­tients and mar­ket share. Some trends have con­se­quences, and this is one of them.

9 Al­ny­lam achieves break­through RNAi suc­cess as PhI­II patisir­an study hits all goals, shares soar

This re­al­ly was a re­mark­able year for ma­jor break­throughs. Al­ny­lam’s suc­cess with the Phase III for patisir­an sets up its first ever FDA ap­pli­ca­tion, af­ter 15 years of hard work. This com­pa­ny stayed true to the RNAi faith while big phar­ma com­pa­nies bailed and doubts grew that any­one could ever make a com­mer­cial suc­cess out of it. But the crew at Alnlyam made it hap­pen. That kind of suc­cess de­serves to be rec­og­nized, and the in­dus­try clear­ly didn’t over­look the im­pli­ca­tions.

10 In a stun­ning set­back, Roche says its top can­cer drug Tecen­triq failed a key PhI­II study

Iron­i­cal­ly, I’m writ­ing this up on the same day that Roche’s stock jumped 6%, large­ly be­cause its triple com­bo of Tecen­triq, Avastin and chemo proved ef­fec­tive in in­creas­ing pro­gres­sion-free sur­vival for first-line lung can­cer. Back in May, though, its fail­ure for a Phase III blad­der can­cer tri­al, af­ter an ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval, un­der­scored just how frag­ile suc­cess can be in the PD-1/L1 check­point are­na. One com­pa­ny grabs the lead, the next day they blow up in the clin­ic, or a ri­val does bet­ter in its cho­sen are­na. Now sev­er­al years in­to the check­point rev­o­lu­tion, the sur­pris­es keep on com­ing with amaz­ing reg­u­lar­i­ty, dri­ving on more com­pe­ti­tion for what is rapid­ly be­com­ing a wild­ly over­crowd­ed mar­ket niche. This was just one chap­ter of a sto­ry that shows no signs of com­ing to a close — but change is com­ing.

It’s fi­nal­ly over: Bio­gen, Ei­sai scrap big Alzheimer’s PhI­I­Is af­ter a pre­dictable BACE cat­a­stro­phe rais­es safe­ty fears

Months after analysts and investors called on Biogen and Eisai to scrap their BACE drug for Alzheimer’s and move on in the wake of a string of late-stage failures and rising safety fears, the partners have called it quits. And they said they were dropping the drug — elenbecestat — after the independent monitoring board raised concerns about…safety.

We don’t know exactly what researchers found in this latest catastrophe, but the companies noted in their release that investigators had determined that the drug was flunking the risk/benefit analysis.

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It's not per­fect, but it's a good start: FDA pan­elists large­ly en­dorse Aim­mune's peanut al­ler­gy ther­a­py

Two days after a fairly benign review from FDA staff, an independent panel of experts largely endorsed the efficacy and safety of Aimmune’s peanut allergy therapy, laying the groundwork for approval with a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy (REMS).

Traditionally, peanut allergies are managed by avoidance, but the threat of accidental exposure cannot be nullified. Some allergists have devised a way to dose patients off-label with peanut protein derived from supermarket products to wean them off their allergies. The idea behind Aimmune’s product was to standardize the peanut protein, and track the process of desensitization — so when accidental exposure in the real world invariably occurs, patients are less likely to experience a life-threatening allergic reaction.

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Rit­ter bombs fi­nal PhI­II for sole lac­tose in­tol­er­ance drug — shares plum­met

More than two years ago Ritter Pharmaceuticals managed to find enough silver lining in its Phase IIb/III study — after missing the top-line mark — to propel its lactose intolerance toward a confirmatory trial. But as it turned out, the enthusiasm only set the biotech and its investors up to be sorely disappointed.

This time around there’s little left to salvage. Not only did RP-G28 fail to beat placebo in reducing lactose intolerance symptoms, patients in the treatment group actually averaged a smaller improvement. On a composite score measuring symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and gas, patients given the drug had a mean reduction of 3.159 while the placebo cohort saw a 3.420 drop on average (one-sided p-value = 0.0106).

Ear­ly snap­shot of Ad­verum's eye gene ther­a­py sparks con­cern about vi­sion loss

An early-stage update on Adverum Biotechnologies’ intravitreal gene therapy has triggered investor concern, after patients with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) saw their vision deteriorate, despite signs that the treatment is improving retinal anatomy.

Adverum, on Wednesday, unveiled 24-week data from the OPTIC trial of its experimental therapy, ADVM-022, in six patients who have been administered with one dose of the therapy. On average, patients in the trial had severe disease with an average of 6.2 anti-VEGF injections in the eight months prior to screening and an average annualized injection frequency of 9.3 injections.

Alex Ar­faei trades his an­a­lyst's post for a new role as biotech VC; Sanofi vet heads to Vi­for

Too often, Alex Arfaei arrived too late. 

An analyst at BMO Capital Markets, he’d meet with biotech or pharmaceutical heads for their IPO or secondary funding and his brain, trained on a biology degree and six years at Merck and Endo, would spring with questions: Why this biomarker? Why this design? Why not this endpoint? Not that he could do anything about it. These execs were coming for clinical money; their decisions had been made and finalized long ago.

Arde­lyx bags its first FDA OK for IBS, set­ting up a show­down with Al­ler­gan, Iron­wood

In the first of what it hopes will be a couple of major regulatory milestones for its new drug, Ardelyx has bagged an FDA approval to market Ibsrela (tenapanor) for irritable bowel syndrome.

The drug’s first application will be for IBS with constipation (IBS-C), inhibiting sodium-hydrogen exchanger NHE3 in the GI tract in such a way as to increase bowel movements and decrease abdominal pain. This comes on the heels of two successful Phase III trials.

Ver­tex deal for Scot­land — no deal for Eng­land

Cystic fibrosis (CF) drug maker Vertex Pharmaceuticals — which is still locked in negotiation with NHS England to endorse the use of its medicines — has successfully negotiated a deal with Scottish authorities.

A month ago, the Scottish Medicines Consortium spurned two of the company’s medicines — Orkambi and Symkevi — citing uncertainty over their long-term efficacy in relation to their cost.

Tony Kulesa, Brian Baynes. Petri

Star founders, in­ves­ti­ga­tors hud­dle around new Boston ac­cel­er­a­tor spot­light­ing young en­tre­pre­neurs

As a widely recognized biotech hub, Boston is undoubtedly one of the best places to start a new company at the frontier of biology and engineering. With a dense network of incubators, venture capitalists and talent, seasoned company founders can have their pick of partners and models launching their latest startups.

But for young, aspiring entrepreneurs, it’s a very different scene.

Big VC firms might hire you to work on their ideas instead of yours, and accelerators may not offer the kind of deep technical expertise and guidance needed to make it in the field.

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From part­ner to knight in shin­ing ar­mor: Cas­tle Creek to buy Fi­bro­cell

In April, Castle Creek swooped in to partner with the embattled gene and cell therapy Fibrocell to shepherd its lead gene therapy for a type of “butterfly” disease into late-stage development. Now, the New Jersey-based dermatology company is acquiring its partner in a deal worth $63.3 million.

Pennsylvania-based Fibrocell last year initiated a review of strategic alternatives, including a sale.