The Sarep­ta dilem­ma: Bioethics ex­pert Arthur Ca­plan says it’s time to re­think how to reg­u­late com­pas­sion

Arthur Ca­plan was nev­er en­thu­si­as­tic about the idea of an FDA ap­proval for Ex­ondys 51 (eteplirsen) for Duchenne mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy. When it came through, the not­ed NYU bioethics ex­pert saw it as a de­vi­a­tion from the FDA’s poli­cies on how drugs should be stud­ied and re­viewed, fo­cus­ing on safe­ty and a clear sig­nal of ef­fi­ca­cy.

But there were a lot of things wrong with it.

“The tri­al was poor,” Ca­plan tells me, “and even with small num­bers I think it could have been done bet­ter.” The ve­he­ment pub­lic lob­by­ing by Duchenne fam­i­lies to get it across the fin­ish line al­so didn’t con­vince him that the agency need­ed to make it avail­able.

“Some­times, peo­ple see what they want to see,” he says. “And some­times they’re right. It’s an iffy ba­sis for ap­prov­ing things.”

But this isn’t a sto­ry about a promi­nent bioethi­cist ob­ject­ing to the FDA’s con­tro­ver­sial rul­ing, which hinged en­tire­ly on Janet Wood­cock’s will­ing­ness to over­ride her col­leagues.

At this point, says Ca­plan, de­bat­ing over whether the FDA should or should not have ap­proved the drug is dis­tract­ing from the re­al is­sues at hand. Sarep­ta, he says, was a shot across the bow of the FDA and bio­phar­ma.

“Let’s use the Sarep­ta bat­tle to re­vis­it where we are with com­pas­sion­ate use, what con­sti­tutes ev­i­dence, what will be ac­cept­ed as ev­i­dence and who pays for col­lec­tion of the ev­i­dence and ul­ti­mate­ly ear­ly ac­cess,” says Ca­plan.

Be­cause the next Sarep­ta will be right around the next cor­ner. Fol­lowed by the next, the next and.…

“The FDA should be think­ing hard about this,” says Ca­plan. “This is the first in what will be a long pa­rade of dis­eases that af­fects small num­bers of pa­tients.

“We’re try­ing to bal­ance the chal­lenge of com­pas­sion­ate use against ap­proval and I think we have to re­vis­it the whole sub­ject,” says Ca­plan. “This is a trig­ger to re-ex­am­ine what are we go­ing to do down the road. Are ex­pand­ed ac­cess guide­lines ad­e­quate? Is it time to start re­think­ing what sort of in­for­ma­tion can be pro­vid­ed as ev­i­dence? What about ul­tra rare dis­eases, where the num­bers are small?   What should reg­u­la­tors ex­pect in terms of ‘ev­i­dence’”

Just con­sid­er gene ther­a­py, which is tar­get­ing path­ways where the num­bers are of­ten tiny.

“We have to start to re­think what con­sti­tutes ‘ad­e­quate’ and ‘suf­fi­cient’ ev­i­dence,” do we need more manda­to­ry ex­ten­sive Phase 4 mon­i­tor­ing than now oc­curs he says.

How should de­vel­op­ers and the FDA think about eval­u­at­ing hope­ful ear­ly signs of ef­fi­ca­cy? What tar­gets should you go af­ter? Where should sur­ro­gate end­points play a big role?

“To­day’s tri­al de­signs are not up to what has been ex­pect­ed in terms of ev­i­dence,” says Ca­plan, “and do­ing this on the fly doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The FDA is be­hind the curve on where the sci­ence is and where con­sumer pres­sures are be­ing ap­plied. If they had been up to speed, says Ca­plan, Sarep­ta could have been guid­ed much ear­li­er to pro­vide more rel­e­vant da­ta with what they had.

“I don’t think they col­lect­ed enough sys­tem­at­ic in­for­ma­tion,” says the ethi­cist. “The FDA might have de­mand­ed more ear­li­er. The com­pa­ny could have done more.”

And how can you even run tri­als when a drug is made avail­able ear­ly to small pa­tient groups with very rare dis­eases through com­pas­sion­ate use, which might be a bet­ter way to go for pa­tients than a place­bo tri­al?

Un­der the old so­cial con­tract be­tween drug com­pa­nies and pa­tients, says Ca­plan, if pa­tients were will­ing to run the risk of be­ing in the con­trol arm, they could sign up for a tri­al to help prove if a drug worked or not — and might get it. In the process, they were will­ing to take a big risk to gain ac­cess and help the process of drug de­vel­op­ment.

That kind of arrange­ment no longer works for pa­tients.

“The new deal is, I want the drug,” says Ca­plan, “I want to help me. So pa­tient groups praise these new drugs, say­ing every­thing is great, I want the drug.”

And they don’t want to be left pay­ing for it out of pock­et, ei­ther, es­pe­cial­ly if you’re talk­ing about a $300,000 a year bill for a rare dis­ease ther­a­py like Ex­ondys 51. But then, nei­ther do in­sur­ers like An­them, which an­nounced late last week that they wouldn’t re­im­burse for a drug the in­sur­er has de­ter­mined is still ex­per­i­men­tal.

“Of course it’s an ex­per­i­men­tal drug,” Ca­plan re­sponds. “They’re not go­ing to be bound by that kind of an FDA de­ci­sion un­til they think there’s ad­e­quate ev­i­dence. And this is es­pe­cial­ly true since it’s very ex­pen­sive.”

So who does pay for these? Of­ten, small biotechs like Sarep­ta can’t af­ford to pay. So when Ca­plan hears state and Fed­er­al law­mak­ers talk about the right to try, he won­ders why they don’t im­me­di­ate­ly start dis­cussing how they pro­pose to pro­vide the funds to pay for it.

That’s an­oth­er part of the dis­cus­sion that’s miss­ing in ac­tion in this de­bate, says the ethi­cist. And it’s past time for the in­dus­try, the FDA, law­mak­ers and pa­tient groups to grap­ple with the re­al­i­ty of cost and all the sci­en­tif­ic is­sues now.

Time has run short for tak­ing a com­pre­hen­sive look at one of the most dif­fi­cult top­ics in the in­dus­try—how best to reg­u­late com­pas­sion.

Drug man­u­fac­tur­ing gi­ant Lon­za taps Roche/phar­ma ‘rein­ven­tion’ vet as its new CEO

Lonza chairman Albert Baehny took his time headhunting a new CEO for the company, making it absolutely clear he wanted a Big Pharma or biotech CEO with a good long track record in the business for the top spot. In the end, he went with the gold standard, turning to Roche’s ranks to recruit Pierre-Alain Ruffieux for the job.

Ruffieux, a member of the pharma leadership team at Roche, spent close to 5 years at the company. But like a small army of manufacturing execs, he gained much of his experience at the other Big Pharma in Basel, remaining at Novartis for 12 years before expanding his horizons.

Bris­tol My­ers is clean­ing up the post-Cel­gene merg­er pipeline, and they’re sweep­ing out an ex­per­i­men­tal check­point in the process

Back during the lead up to the $74 billion buyout of Celgene, the big biotech’s leadership did a little housecleaning with a major pact it had forged with Jounce. Out went the $2.6 billion deal and a collaboration on ICOS and PD-1.

Celgene, though, also added a $530 million deal — $50 million up front — to get the worldwide rights to JTX-8064, a drug that targets the LILRB2 receptor on macrophages.

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GSK presents case to ex­pand use of its lu­pus drug in pa­tients with kid­ney dis­ease, but the field is evolv­ing. How long will the mo­nop­oly last?

In 2011, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta became the first biologic to win approval for lupus patients. Nine years on, the British drugmaker has unveiled detailed positive results from a study testing the drug in lupus patients with associated kidney disease — a post-marketing requirement from the initial FDA approval.

Lupus is a drug developer’s nightmare. In the last six decades, there has been just one FDA approval (Benlysta), with the field resembling a graveyard in recent years with a string of failures including UCB and Biogen’s late-stage flop, as well as defeats in Xencor and Sanofi’s programs. One of the main reasons the success has eluded researchers is because lupus, akin to cancer, is not just one disease — it really is a disease of many diseases, noted Al Roy, executive director of Lupus Clinical Investigators Network, an initiative of New York-based Lupus Research Alliance that claims it is the world’s leading private funder of lupus research, in an interview.

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UP­DAT­ED: Leg­end fetch­es $424 mil­lion, emerges as biggest win­ner yet in pan­dem­ic IPO boom as shares soar

Amid a flurry of splashy pandemic IPOs, a J&J-partnered Chinese biotech has emerged with one of the largest public raises in biotech history.

Legend Biotech, the Nanjing-based CAR-T developer, has raised $424 million on NASDAQ. The biotech had originally filed for a still-hefty $350 million, based on a range of $18-$20, but managed to fetch $23 per share, allowing them to well-eclipse the massive raises from companies like Allogene, Juno, Galapagos, though they’ll still fall a few dollars short of Moderna’s record-setting $600 million raise from 2018.

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As it hap­pened: A bid­ding war for an an­tibi­ot­ic mak­er in a mar­ket that has rav­aged its peers

In a bewildering twist to the long-suffering market for antibiotics — there has actually been a bidding war for an antibiotic company: Tetraphase.

It all started back in March, when the maker of Xerava (an FDA approved therapy for complicated intra-abdominal infections) said it had received an offer from AcelRx for an all-stock deal valued at $14.4 million.

The offer was well-timed. Xerava was approved in 2018, four years after Tetraphase posted its first batch of pivotal trial data, and sales were nowhere near where they needed to be in order for the company to keep its head above water.

David Meline (file photo)

Mod­er­na’s new CFO took a cut in salary to jump to the mR­NA rev­o­lu­tion­ary. But then there’s the rest of the com­pen­sa­tion pack­age

David Meline took a little off the top of his salary when he jumped from the CFO post at giant Amgen to become the numbers czar at the upstart vaccines revolutionary Moderna. But the SEC filing that goes with a major hire also illustrates how it puts him in line for a fortune — provided the biotech player makes good as a promising game changer.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with the base salary: $600,000. Or the up-to 50% annual cash bonus — an industry standard — that comes with it. True, the 62-year-old earned $999,000 at Amgen in 2019, but it’s the stock options that really count in the current market bliss for all things biopharma. And there Meline did well.

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Covid-19 roundup: Ab­b­Vie jumps in­to Covid-19 an­ti­body hunt; As­traZeneca shoots for 2B dos­es of Ox­ford vac­cine — with $750M from CEPI, Gavi

Another Big Pharma is entering the Covid-19 antibody hunt.

AbbVie has announced a collaboration with the Netherlands’ Utrecht University and Erasmus Medical Center and the Chinese-Dutch biotech Harbour Biomed to develop a neutralizing antibody that can treat Covid-19. The antibody, called 47D11, was discovered by AbbVie’s three partners, and AbbVie will support early preclinical work, while preparing for later preclinical and clinical development. Researchers described the antibody in Nature Communications last month.

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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