Tired of fin­ish­ing in last place, Eli Lil­ly’s new R&D chief wants to shake things up

Dan Skovron­sky. LIL­LY PAD

Bern­stein’s Tim An­der­son has been hold­ing some in-depth dis­cus­sions with the ex­ec­u­tive team at Eli Lil­ly, in­clud­ing Dan Skovron­sky, the in­com­ing head of R&D. And it’s clear that Skovron­sky — who’s tak­ing Jan Lund­berg’s place June 1 — in­tends to get more ag­gres­sive in ear­ly-stage de­vel­op­ment as he works to com­plete­ly shed a well-earned rep­u­ta­tion for a go-slow clin­i­cal ap­proach that has fre­quent­ly put them at the end of a long line of ri­vals.

If you look at some of the most ex­cit­ing tar­gets in our in­dus­try, tar­gets that Lil­ly has worked on, things like CDK 4/6, IL-17, IL-23, PC­SK9, CGRP, in each of these we could eas­i­ly have been first,” Skovron­sky, the for­mer CEO of Avid Ra­dio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, told An­der­son. “Our sci­en­tists were among the first work­ing on these tar­gets in the lab and mak­ing drugs against them. In many cas­es, we were slow get­ting up the courage to move in­to hu­man tri­als for var­i­ous rea­sons. We are look­ing to change that.”

Tim An­der­son

That means launch­ing more Phase I stud­ies, look­ing for ear­ly signs of whether they’re on the right track. Then they can de­cide to move for­ward quick­ly, or kill it in the case of weak da­ta.

“We want to be the first test­ing nov­el mech­a­nisms, so that is one change,” Skovron­sky not­ed. “You should see more Lil­ly Phase I tri­als and proof-of-con­cept tri­als on nov­el mech­a­nisms. An­oth­er change that you can ex­pect is that some­times I think Lil­ly has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a fast fol­low­er or de­vel­op me-too drugs in the past. We do not think that is sus­tain­able for our in­dus­try. We need to be fo­cused on drugs with large ef­fect sizes. I think that is al­ways our in­tent, but we con­tin­ue to ratch­et up the pres­sure here to re­al­ly on­ly move for­ward the drugs that we be­lieve can de­liv­er that kind of large dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed ef­fect for pa­tients.”  

Quick trans­la­tion: Go big or go home. And no more lin­ger­ing.

“That means in Phase II proof-of-con­cept stud­ies you should ex­pect us to test new mech­a­nisms in a small num­ber of pa­tients look­ing for the large ef­fect size. If we do not get it, we will move on to the next mech­a­nism and not try and eke out an OK drug. We can talk about that with Alzheimer’s, di­a­betes and oth­er ar­eas; it is work­ing ob­vi­ous­ly in on­col­o­gy and im­munol­o­gy. So speed and large ef­fect sizes. Then the third thing is con­tin­ued evo­lu­tion on ex­ter­nal in­no­va­tion. In the past, we have been pret­ty good at bring­ing in drugs late in de­vel­op­ment, lots of Phase III part­ner­ships or Phase II af­ter proof of con­cept. I think where we are seek­ing to im­prove is on ear­li­er-stage deals. So we will con­tin­ue to do those late deals, but we al­so want to bring in more nov­el tar­gets, nov­el tech­nolo­gies, nov­el drugs in ear­li­er high­er risk stages of de­vel­op­ment.  Some of the changes we have al­ready an­nounced, for ex­am­ple, mov­ing busi­ness de­vel­op­ment in­to R&D should help fa­cil­i­tate that.  But you should ex­pect to see more of that in the fu­ture.”

Eli Lil­ly is one of the world’s top 15 R&D op­er­a­tors, with a string of new drug ap­provals in the last few years that fol­lowed a long and in­cred­i­bly frus­trat­ing de­vel­op­ment drought. It’s had some big set­backs along the way, in­clud­ing the ini­tial re­jec­tion of baric­i­tinib, now back on track at the FDA. Its painstak­ing progress in the clin­ic has de­liv­ered some im­pres­sive da­ta, but Skovron­sky knows that com­pe­ti­tion among the top play­ers is heat­ing up.

Now he’s signed off on a new mis­sion state­ment to fix what still ails Lil­ly.

A New Fron­tier: The In­ner Ear

What happens when a successful biotech venture capitalist is unexpectedly diagnosed with a chronic, life-disrupting vertigo disorder? Innovation in neurotology.

That venture capitalist was Jay Lichter, Ph.D., and after learning there was no FDA-approved drug treatment for his condition, Ménière’s disease, he decided to create a company to bring drug development to neurotology. Otonomy was founded in 2008 and is dedicated to finding new drug treatments for the hugely underserved community living with balance and hearing disorders. Helping patients like Jay has been the driving force behind Otonomy, a company heading into a transformative 2020 with three clinical trial readouts: Phase 3 in Ménière’s disease, Phase 2 in tinnitus, and Phase 1/2 in hearing loss. These catalysts, together with others in the field, highlight the emerging opportunity in neurotology.
Otonomy is leading the way in neurotology
Neurotology, or the treatment of inner ear neurological disorders, is a large and untapped market for drug developers: one in eight individuals in the U.S. have moderate-to-severe hearing loss, tinnitus or vertigo disorders such as Ménière’s disease.1 With no FDA-approved drug treatments available for these conditions, the burden on patients—including social anxiety, lower quality of life, reduced work productivity, and higher rates of depression—can be significant.2, 3, 4

Ac­celeron of­fers thumbs up on a PhII suc­cess for would-be block­buster drug -- but holds da­ta in re­serve

There’s no public data yet, but Acceleron $XLRN says that its first major trial readout of 2020 is a success.

In a Phase II study of 106 patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), Acceleron’s experimental drug sotatercept hit its primary endpoint: a significant reduction in pulmonary vascular resistance. The drug also met three different secondary endpoints, including the 6-minute walking test.

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Patrik Jonsson, the president of Lilly Bio-Medicines

Who knew? Der­mi­ra’s board kept watch as its stock price tracked Eli Lil­ly’s se­cret bid­ding on a $1.1B buy­out

In just 8 days, from December 6 to December 14, the stock jumped from $7.88 to $12.70 — just under the initial $13 bid. There was no hard news about the company that would explain a rise like that tracking closely to the bid offer, raising the obvious question of whether insider info has leaked out to traders.

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Short at­tack­er Sahm Ad­ran­gi draws crosshairs over a fa­vorite of Sanofi’s new CEO — with PhII da­ta loom­ing

Sahm Adrang Kerrisdale

Kerrisdale chief Sahm Adrangi took a lengthy break from his series of biotech short attacks after his chief analyst in the field pulled up stakes and went solo. But he’s making a return to drug development this morning, drawing crosshairs over a company that’s one of new Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson’s favorite collaborators.

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Civi­ca and Blue Cross Blue Shield launch new ven­ture to low­er gener­ic prices

Five years after Martin Shkreli put a smug face to the volatile prices companies can charge even for generic drugs, payers and governments are coming up with outside-the-box solutions.

The latest fix is a new venture from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, 18 of its members and Civica, the generics company founded in 2018 by hospitals fed up with high prices for drugs that had long-since lost patent protection. While Civica focused on drugs that hospitals purchased, the new company will aim to lower prices on drugs that, like Shkreli’s Daraprim, are purchased by individuals.

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Merck Invests in State-Of-The-Art Biotech Development Facility in Switzerland

Mer­ck KGaA match­es lofty R&D goals with €250M in­vest­ment in­to a new clin­i­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing site in Switzer­land

As Merck KGaA strives to prove itself as a capable biopharma R&D player, it has begun construction on a €250 million facility dedicated to developing and manufacturing drugs for use in clinical trials.

The German drugmaker chose a location at Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, where it already has a commercial manufacturing site, in order to “bridge together research and manufacturing.”

“This investment in the Merck Biotech Development Center reflects our commitment to speed up the availability of new medicines for patients in need, and confirms the importance of Switzerland as our prime hub for the manufacturing of biotech medicines,” CEO Stefan Oschmann said at the groundbreaking ceremony, according to a statement.

Breast can­cer ap­proval in tow, As­traZeneca, Dai­ichi armed an­ti­body scores in key gas­tric can­cer study

AstraZeneca kicked off Monday with a flurry of good news. Apart from unveiling positive results on its stroke trial testing its clot-fighter Brilinta, and welcoming its experimental IL-23 inhibitor brazikumab back from Allergan — the British drugmaker also disclosed some upbeat gastric cancer data on its HER2-positive oncology therapy it is collaborating on with Daiichi Sankyo.

Buoyed by the performance of its oncology drugs, last March AstraZeneca chief Pascal Soriot bet big to partner with Daiichi on the cancer drug, with $1.35 billion upfront in a deal worth up to roughly $7 billion. Roughly 8 months later, as 2019 drew to a close, the FDA swiftly approved the drug — trastuzumab deruxtecan — for use in breast cancer, months ahead of the expected decision date.

Sor­ren­to shrugs off an anony­mous pri­vate eq­ui­ty group’s $1B of­fer to buy the com­pa­ny

San Diego-based Sorrento Therapeutics isn’t going the M&A route — at least not today.

The biotech caused quite a stir when it put out word a few weeks ago that an unidentified private equity group was bidding a billion dollars-plus for the company. The news drove a quick spike in the company’s share price as investors hooked up for the ride — that didn’t happen.

The update sparked a 5% drop in the share price $SRNE ahead of the bell. It’s now trading just above $4, without any evidence that the $7 price looked like it was firm.

UP­DAT­ED: Ab­b­Vie do­nates $1M+ of the HIV drug that Chi­na is now rec­om­mend­ing for coro­n­avirus treat­ment

AbbVie is donating more than $1 million worth of an HIV drug to help combat the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak in China, the company announced on Friday.

China’s National Health Commission has suggested Aluvia, a pill containing lopinavir and ritonavir, as one of two possible treatments for the symptoms of the virus currently known as 2019-nCoV in the absence of effective antiviral medications. The other part is nebulized alpha-interferon.