The gene ther­a­py pric­ing de­bate gets re­al as Spark sets $850,000 charge for its pi­o­neer­ing drug

Years of de­bate, spec­u­la­tion and analy­sis have boiled down to this: Spark $ONCE Ther­a­peu­tics has set an $850,000 whole­sale ac­qui­si­tion cost for the US’s first gene ther­a­py — $425,000 per eye dam­aged by an RPE65 gene mu­ta­tion.

Set to roll out in a mat­ter of weeks, the WAC price for Lux­tur­na falls to­ward the high­er end of an­a­lysts’ bets, which ranged from about $600,000 to just un­der the $1 mil­lion mark for what’s in­tend­ed as a one-time treat­ment for the rare, sight-steal­ing ge­net­ic con­di­tion. Now the high­est priced ther­a­py in the coun­try — out­pac­ing drugs like Spin­raza at $750,000 for the first year of ther­a­py — it falls on Spark to come up with the right pric­ing mod­el that can per­suade pay­ers to cov­er the pro­ce­dure for a small group of un­der 2,000 po­ten­tial pa­tients, with few­er than 20 new pa­tients per year.

Spark’s ex­pe­ri­ence will have an im­mense im­pact on the en­tire gene ther­a­py field, blaz­ing a far wider path that will heav­i­ly in­flu­ence the com­mer­cial for­tunes of a whole wave of gene ther­a­py com­pa­nies look­ing to field once-and-done cures for some of the worst dis­eases to af­flict mankind. And know­ing full well just how much to­day’s close­ly-watched mar­ket­ing plan will be re­viewed by the health­care sys­tem, Spark’s pric­ing team has come up with a mix of re­bates and pro­posed stag­gered pay­ment mod­els de­signed to ease past barbed pay­er bar­ri­ers that can crip­ple any drug launch.

From the time that Jeff Mar­raz­zo first start­ed at the helm of up­start Spark Ther­a­peu­tics about 5 years ago, he’s been think­ing about what the first gene ther­a­py in the US would cost.

And think­ing. And think­ing. And think­ing.

“Did you ever see The Nev­erEnd­ing Sto­ry?” Mar­raz­zo asks me jok­ing­ly in a rare break from his care­ful­ly pre­pared pre­view of the plan, still sound­ing some­what amazed that he’s ac­tu­al­ly reached this stage of the game.

To­day, fi­nal­ly, is the be­gin­ning of an­oth­er im­por­tant chap­ter in the gene ther­a­py sto­ry. And the $850,000 tal­ly Spark is rolling out now is, like all health­care pric­ing in the US, a lot more com­pli­cat­ed than the big round WAC fig­ures peo­ple re­act to.

True to his metic­u­lous na­ture, Mar­raz­zo wants to care­ful­ly ex­plain the mul­ti-tier pay­ment mod­el Spark’s team has been craft­ing and the ob­jec­tive be­hind it all: Not just steer­ing the first gene ther­a­py to an ap­proval, but mak­ing sure that pay­ers will cov­er it so that pa­tients will be able use it to save their vi­sion.

In do­ing this, Mar­raz­zo is al­so acute­ly aware that the first pay­ment mod­el will like­ly heav­i­ly in­flu­ence what and how he charges for a gene ther­a­py for he­mo­phil­ia, now well down the clin­i­cal path. And left un­said is the im­pact that his plan will bear on the en­tire field in­volv­ing blue­bird bio and every­one else press­ing in be­hind him.

Keep in mind, he notes in Busi­ness 101 mode, that there are two key items that de­ter­mine the com­mer­cial val­ue of any new ther­a­py. The price you charge, and the units you sell.

“If the units sold is ze­ro you have ze­ro in the rev­enue line,” says the CEO, what­ev­er the price. And that’s not what Mar­raz­zo and this pub­licly trad­ed com­pa­ny have been in the hunt for.

For some time Mar­raz­zo has re­sist­ed the idea of of­fer­ing re­bates for pa­tients who fail to ben­e­fit fol­low­ing treat­ment. That, he tells me, had more to do with man­ag­ing ex­pec­ta­tions as the com­pa­ny nav­i­gates a com­plex set of hur­dles built in to fed­er­al and com­mer­cial pric­ing poli­cies. But the Spark pric­ing team has worked it out so that un­der one mod­el Spark can of­fer pay­ers un­spec­i­fied re­bates at 30 days and 30 months — which is about the av­er­age amount of time a pa­tient stays in a com­mer­cial plan — if Lux­tur­na falls short of es­tab­lished ef­fi­ca­cy goals on vi­sion.

Michael Sher­man

He al­so per­suad­ed Har­vard Pil­grim CMO Michael Sher­man to of­fer a key en­dorse­ment: “This out­comes-based re­bate arrange­ment is tru­ly in­no­v­a­tive, as it ties pay­ment for the ther­a­peu­tic not on­ly to a short-term goal, but al­so to a longer-term, 30-month as­sess­ment of ef­fi­ca­cy.”

Mar­raz­zo’s not say­ing how much he’s of­fer­ing in re­bates, but when I asked him why not a full re­fund for pa­tients who don’t re­spond ad­e­quate­ly, he said that’s not pos­si­ble. There are so few pa­tients in­volved for each health plan that a full or near full re­bate would take the low­est pos­si­ble price down to ze­ro, which he would have to of­fer to fed­er­al pay­ers — mak­ing it a com­mer­cial dis­as­ter.

To avoid putting hos­pi­tals in a fix over the “buy and bill” re­im­burse­ment mod­el, which leaves them on the hook for the ini­tial cost of the treat­ment, Spark is con­tract­ing di­rect­ly with pay­ers on the price, leav­ing the providers to charge for their end of the pro­ce­dure.

Still in the works is a pro­pos­al to CMS for stag­gered pay­ments, with an up­front amount and bills due through a set pe­ri­od of time. And the com­pa­ny is al­so work­ing on cov­er­ing pa­tients’ out of pock­et costs as part of the over­all price.

Tak­en as a whole, he says, the Spark pric­ing strat­e­gy of­fers the best chance of win­ning cov­er­age for a rad­i­cal­ly new and ex­pen­sive ther­a­peu­tic ap­proach.

In Eu­rope, where the first two gene ther­a­pies have been rolled out to a mere hand­ful of pa­tients in sin­gle pay­er sys­tems, the fail­ure to gain ac­cep­tance has been a vir­tu­al death sen­tence for man­u­fac­tur­ers. Up against a much more in­tri­cate set of US hur­dles, Spark’s team think they have many of the ba­sics worked out.

We’ll know soon whether Mar­raz­zo found the key to open­ing the mar­ket to gene ther­a­pies, or fash­ioned a jour­ney in­to a blind al­ley.

Jude Samulski, Marianne De Backer

Bay­er buys a biotech ‘race horse’ with a $4B deal — $2B in cash — aimed at go­ing big in­to gene ther­a­py

In the latest sign that Big Pharma wants a leading place in the push to develop a new generation of cell and gene therapies, Bayer is stepping up today with a $2 billion cash deal to buy out one of the fast-moving pioneers in the field, while adding up to $2 billion more in milestones if the new pharma subsidiary can deliver the goods.

As part of a continuing series of deals engineered by Bayer BD chief Marianne De Backer, the pharma player has snapped up Asklepios, more commonly referred to in more casual fashion as AskBio. And they are paying top dollar for a Research Triangle Park-based company that raised $225 million a little more than a year ago to back the brainchild of Jude Samulski, the gene therapy pioneer out of the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center.

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Patrick Soon-Shiong at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, Jan. 13, 2020 (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter falling be­hind the lead­ers, dissed by some ex­perts, biotech show­man Patrick Soon-Sh­iong fi­nal­ly gets his Covid-19 vac­cine ready for a tri­al. But can it live up to the hype?

In January, when dozens of scientists rushed to start making a vaccine for the then-novel coronavirus, they were joined by an unlikely compatriot: Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire doctor most famous for making big, controversial promises on cancer research.

Soon-Shiong had spent the last 4 years on his “Cancer Moonshot,” but part of his project meant buying a small Seattle biotech that specialized in making common-cold vectors, called adenoviruses, to train the immune system. The billionaire had been using those vectors for oncology, but the company had also developed vaccine candidates for H1N1, Lassa fever and other viruses. When the outbreak began, he pivoted.

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No­var­tis CEO Vas Narasimhan signs off on a $231M deal to try some­thing new in the R&D fight against SARS-CoV-2

Patrick Amstutz was baptized by pandemic fire early on.

He and colleagues attended the notorious Cowen conference in early March that included some of the top Biogen execs who helped trigger a superspreader event in Boston. Heading back to his post as CEO of Molecular Partners in Switzerland, the outbreak was sweeping through Italy, triggering near panic in some quarters and creeping into the voices of people he knew, including one friend on the Italian side of the country.

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Image: Shutterstock

Covid-19 roundup: Sanofi and GSK pledge 200M vac­cine dos­es for a glob­al dis­tri­b­u­tion cam­paign

Sanofi and GSK have agreed to give 200 million doses of their vaccine candidate to the COVAX Facility, which is part of a program set up by CEPI, the WHO and Gavi to equitably distribute vaccines around the world.

The idea behind COVAX is to give all participating countries equal access to vaccines, regardless of income level. As of Oct 14, more than 180 countries had signed agreements to the COVAX Facility, including France and the UK. China joined earlier this month, pledging to make its vaccines a “global public good.” One country notably off the list is the United States.

Cedric Francois, Apellis CEO (Optum via YouTube)

UP­DAT­ED: So­bi bets $250M cash, about $1B in mile­stones for rights to a C3 ther­a­py be­ing pushed through 5 piv­otal tri­als

A couple years after licensing Novimmune’s emapalumab and turning around a quick FDA OK, Stockholm-based Sobi is betting up to $1.2 billion for rights to another rare disease drug.

The company is shelling out $250 million upfront and adding up to $915 million in milestones for rights to develop and commercialize Apellis Pharmaceuticals’ drug pegcetacoplan outside the US. Together, the companies will see the systemic C3 therapy through five registrational trials in hematology, nephrology and neurology.

Christian Rommel (via Roche)

Bay­er fol­lows R&D deal spree by raid­ing Roche's can­cer group for its new re­search chief

The day after Bayer signed off on a $4 billion deal designed to put the company among the leaders in gene therapy development, the pharma giant has recruited a new chief for its R&D division. And they opted for an expert in the cancer field.

Christian Rommel, Roche’s head of discovery and early-stage oncology development, has been tapped to take over the job. Joerg Moeller, who got the top research post after early and late-stage development roles were combined 2 years ago, is hitting the exit “to pursue other career opportunities.”

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Once re­ject­ed, Kala's dry eye drug now gains en­try to a field where No­var­tis is groom­ing its own block­buster

When the FDA slapped a rejection on Kala Pharma’s dry eye drug last August, the biotech’s execs promised investors that a third Phase III study — they had already started at that point — would reverse their fortune.

Today they made good on that promise, clinching an approval for Eysuvis, an ocular corticosteroid being positioned as a first-line, short term treatment of dry eye disease.

Boasting a technology invented by Bob Langer out of MIT, Eysuvis is a corticosteroid, loteprednol etabonate, delivered by mucus-penetrating particles. It promises to enhance penetration into target tissue on the ocular surface, achieving an effect quicker than systemic corticosteroids and stronger than over-the-counter eye drops.

Albert Bourla, AP

UP­DAT­ED: Where's the Pfiz­er ef­fi­ca­cy read­out? CEO Bourla says 'soon,' but you're go­ing to have to wait for it

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla had promised repeatedly that the pharma giant would know if its leading Covid-19 vaccine is effective by the end of this month — now just a few days away.

Instead, the company reported early Tuesday that it has yet to conduct any interim efficacy analyses. And it won’t now until sometime next month.

The news was included in a slide for their Q3 report.

In the morning Q3 call with analysts, Bourla says that they expect efficacy data “soon,” but noted that they wouldn’t be able to say anything until all the administrative work was done on the interim, which would take about a week. And he added that Pfizer isn’t going to say anything else about that hot topic until they have the data in hand.

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Charles Baum, Mirati CEO

UP­DAT­ED: Mi­rati plots a march to the FDA for its KRAS G12C drug, breath­ing down Am­gen’s neck with bet­ter da­ta

Mirati Therapeutics $MRTX took another closely-watched step toward a now clearly defined goal to file for an approval for its KRAS G12C cancer drug adagrasib (MRTX849), scoring a higher response rate than the last readout from the class-leading rival at Amgen but still leaving open a raft of important questions about its future.

Following a snapshot of the first handful of responses, where the drug scored a tumor response in 3 of 5 patients with non-small cell lung cancer, the response rate has now slid to 45% among a pooled group of 51 early-stage and Phase II patients, 43% — 6 of 14 — when looking solely at the Phase I/Ib. Those 14 patients had a median treatment duration of 8.2 months, with half still on therapy and 5 of 6 responders still in response.

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