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.

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End­points 20(+2) un­der 40, 2023; Bio­phar­ma's high­est-paid CEOs; N-of-1 CRISPR sto­ry goes on af­ter tragedy; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

We will be off Monday in observance of Memorial Day — and when we get back, it will be a straight march to ASCO, BIO and more. Enjoy the (long) weekend!

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Bio­phar­ma's 20 high­est-paid CEOs of 2022, each bring­ing in $20M+ pay­days

Even in a down year for much of the biopharma market, 20 CEOs brought in pay packages valued at more than $20 million, an Endpoints News analysis found.

Endpoints collected data on more than 350 CEO compensation packages, covering a wide range of pharma, biotech, and life sciences companies. All told, the 20 largest earners made over $725 million in 2022 — an average package of $36.4 million. Three brought in paydays over $50 million, and one CEO broke the $100 million mark.

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Douglas Love, Annexon CEO

An­nex­on’s GA drug miss­es on pri­ma­ry goal but win on vi­su­al acu­ity will be fo­cus of planned late-stage tri­al

Annexon’s complement inhibitor didn’t prove better than sham at reducing lesion growth in a leading cause of blindness, but the biotech still plans to move forward on the back of secondary endpoints showing visual acuity preservation, which will “certainly” be the primary goal in a late-stage trial to be discussed shortly with the FDA, CEO Douglas Love told Endpoints News. 

The California biotech’s ANX007 was not statistically significant compared to pooled sham, the comparator, at 12 months in patients with geographic atrophy, per a Wednesday presentation. In every-month dosing, the GA lesion area changed about 6.2% from baseline (p=0.526) and 1.3% (p=0.896) in the every-other-month group. In a March note, Jefferies analyst Suji Jeong said a reduction of 20% to 30% would be “encouraging.”

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FDA ap­proves Lex­i­con’s heart-fail­ure drug af­ter de­feat in di­a­betes

The FDA on Friday approved Lexicon’s heart failure drug sotagliflozin following a string of setbacks for the pharma company, including an FDA rejection in diabetes and the loss of a development deal with Sanofi.

The dual SGLT1 and SGLT2 inhibitor will be marketed as Inpefa and is a once-daily tablet. It’s been approved to reduce the risk of cardiovascular death and heart failure-related hospitalization or urgent visits in adults with heart failure or type 2 diabetes mellitus, chronic kidney disease, and other cardiovascular risk factors. The label spans the range of left ventricular ejection fraction, including preserved ejection fraction and reduced ejection fraction, as well as patients with or without diabetes, Lexicon said Friday.

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Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion to re­ceive few­er Pfiz­er-BioN­Tech vac­cine dos­es un­der amend­ed con­tract

The European Commission has made a few changes to its vaccine contract with Pfizer and BioNTech, reducing the dose volume while extending the delivery timeline to cope with “evolving public health needs.”

The Commission previously struck a contract in May 2021 for 900 million doses, with the option to purchase another 900 million. Of those, 450 million were expected to be delivered in 2023, though an amendment now calls for fewer doses. While neither the Commission nor Pfizer and BioNTech have revealed an exact amount, an unnamed source told Reuters that the amendment reduces the remaining expected doses by about a third.

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EMA rec­om­mends re­vok­ing au­tho­riza­tion of No­var­tis' sick­le cell drug

The European Medicines Agency’s committee for medicinal products for human use (CHMP) on Friday recommended revoking the marketing authorization for Novartis’ treatment for a painful complication related to sickle cell, after a recent study did not confirm its clinical benefit.

CHMP’s review looked at results of the STAND study, finding that Adakveo (crizanlizumab) did not reduce the number of painful crises leading to a healthcare visit, and patients treated with Adakveo had slightly more painful crises on average, with a subsequent healthcare visit, over the first year of treatment, compared with those on placebo.

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Rich Horgan (R) with his late brother, Terry

Rich Hor­gan spear­head­ed a gene ther­a­py for his broth­er. The tri­al end­ed in tragedy, but the work con­tin­ues for more pa­tients

Rich Horgan’s quest to create a custom gene therapy for his brother, Terry, ended in tragedy. But Horgan doesn’t believe it’s the end of the story.

Terry, a 27-year-old patient with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, died last October just eight days after receiving the therapy in a clinical trial in which he was the only participant. The case raised questions about the safety of certain gene therapies and what would happen to other drug programs under a nonprofit that Horgan created, called Cure Rare Disease.

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The 20(+2) un­der 40: Your guide to the next gen­er­a­tion of biotech lead­ers

This year’s list of 20 biotech leaders under the age of 40 includes a huge range of ambitions. Some of our honorees are planning to create the next big drug giant. Others are pushing the bounds of AI. One is working to revolutionize TB testing. All are compelling talents who are still young in age, but already far along in achievement.

And, as in years past, we went over. The 20 are actually 22 because of two double profiles that reflect how important teamwork is in the industry. As one of our honorees, Joe Illingworth of DJS Antibodies, told me in our interview, “It takes a village to raise a biotech.”

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