This is it? GSK rolls out a buzzy new R&D plan long on as­pi­ra­tions and short on per­for­mance goals

Glax­o­SmithK­line set out to kick­start some en­thu­si­asm for its pipeline this morn­ing. But CEO Em­ma Walm­s­ley and her new R&D chief Hal Bar­ron clear­ly have a lot more work cut out for them on that crit­i­cal point.

Its quar­ter­ly re­port high­lights a strat­e­gy in R&D that will be heav­i­ly fo­cused on the im­mune sys­tem and hu­man ge­net­ics — two well es­tab­lished fields that long ago at­tract­ed the at­ten­tion of just about every­one work­ing in drug de­vel­op­ment these days. And they signed up 23andMe — pay­ing $300 mil­lion to buy in and gain ex­clu­sive ac­cess to its da­ta base — to help ex­plore dis­ease rel­e­vant genes, herald­ing a “ma­jor ad­vance” while adding to a slate of al­liances on ge­net­ics the Lon­don-based gi­ant has al­ready com­plet­ed.

The phar­ma gi­ant says it will fo­cus more on CRISPR tech, with an em­pha­sis on ma­chine learn­ing and com­pu­ta­tion­al de­sign — a cou­ple of buzzy fea­tures that have al­so been mak­ing the rounds late­ly.

There’s a com­ment on cul­ture:

GSK al­so in­tends to pro­mote a cul­ture of in­creased ac­count­abil­i­ty and smart risk-tak­ing. This will in­clude re­defin­ing suc­cess and fos­ter­ing a cul­ture of truth-seek­ing ver­sus pro­gres­sion- seek­ing, and op­ti­mised port­fo­lio de­ci­sion-mak­ing, along­side im­ple­men­ta­tion of a new ro­bust gov­er­nance mod­el. Tar­get­ed busi­ness de­vel­op­ment to strength­en the Group’s pipeline and tech­nol­o­gy ca­pa­bil­i­ties will al­so be part of the new R&D ap­proach. 

And then there’s the po­ten­tial. Look­ing to make a come­back in phar­ma R&D, GSK tout­ed a BC­MA ther­a­py in de­vel­op­ment — hard­ly the first. HIV al­so war­rants a men­tion, though that will be cen­tered in its ma­jor­i­ty-owned sub­sidiary Vi­iV,  which has been mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant ad­vances along­side the vac­cines group.

With lit­tle in the way of specifics to of­fer from the phar­ma side in the near term, GSK is vague­ly promis­ing big things be­yond 2020.

In a con­fer­ence call with re­porters to­day — at least the ones that weren’t al­lowed a pre­view — Bar­ron and 23andMe chief Anne Wo­j­ci­c­ki hit the dis­cov­ery an­gle hard, high­light­ing what they see as an op­por­tu­ni­ty to find gene vari­ants for Parkin­son’s and can­cer and oth­er dis­eases that would make good new pro­grams.

I asked Bar­ron for his as­sess­ment of the R&D op­er­a­tion he had tak­en on. He em­pha­sized the pos­i­tive, but al­so ac­knowl­edged the weak­ness­es.

“I think it’s im­por­tant to look back at what GSK has done well,” he replied. There have been a num­ber of new ap­provals, he said, but with­out the kind of com­mer­cial im­pact that can gen­er­ate the num­bers the com­pa­ny needs. This new al­liance with 23andMe, he said, of­fered the chance to get at that — with new tar­gets that could be suit­able for mul­ti­ple ap­provals and bet­ter life cy­cle man­age­ment of im­por­tant new drugs.

I tried to fol­low up with a ques­tion on whether GSK had a dis­cov­ery or late-stage drug prob­lem, but got cut off on the call.

GSK brought in the leg­endary Genen­tech vet to turn around what is per­haps the slow­est, most woe­ful Big Phar­ma R&D group in the world. A ge­net­ics data­base deal with 23andMe will of­fer no short-term help, of­fer­ing a leg up for dis­cov­ery work that will be years in the mak­ing. And Bar­ron will try to or­ches­trate the turn­around from his base in the Bay Area, far from GSK’s cen­tral re­search op­er­a­tions around Philadel­phia and Steve­nage in the UK.

De­spite a bud­get of $6 bil­lion, Glax­o­SmithK­line has had lit­tle in the late-stage pipeline to boast about — and the late-stage pipeline is what is used to judge a com­pa­ny’s po­ten­tial in turn­ing out block­busters.

GSK’s phar­ma R&D group doesn’t make block­busters, though. Or hasn’t in years. And adopt­ing a strat­e­gy that any busi­ness school grad­u­ate could have whipped up one af­ter­noon won’t gin up miss­ing ex­cite­ment in the in­vest­ment com­mu­ni­ty.


Im­age: Hal Bar­ron. GSK

A new era of treat­ment: How bio­mark­ers are chang­ing the way we think about can­cer

AJ Patel was recovering from a complicated brain surgery when his oncologist burst into the hospital room yelling, “I’ve got some really great news for you!”

For two years, Patel had been going from doctor to doctor trying to diagnose his wheezing, only to be dealt the devastating news that he had stage IV lung cancer and only six months to live. And then they found the brain tumors.

“What are you talking about?” Patel asked. He had never seen an oncologist so happy.

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Ted White, Verrica Pharmaceuticals CEO

'Hands may be tied': FDA slaps Ver­ri­ca with 3rd CRL due to prob­lems with con­tract man­u­fac­tur­er

The FDA has rejected Verrica Pharmaceuticals’ skin disease treatment for a third time — and once again the contract manufacturer is to blame.

The biotech emphasized that the only deficiency in the complete response letter is related to a general reinspection of the CMO, Sterling Pharmaceuticals, and has nothing to do specifically with its drug-device; the rest of the NDA is good to go.

CEO Ted White said the company is “extremely disappointed,” but will keep working toward approval.

Michael Corbo, Pfizer CDO of inflammation & immunology

UP­DAT­ED: Plan­ning ahead for crowd­ed ul­cer­a­tive col­i­tis mar­ket, Pfiz­er spells out PhI­II da­ta on $6.7B Are­na drug

Pfizer has laid out the detailed results behind its boast that etrasimod — the S1P receptor modulator at the center of its $6.7 billion buyout of Arena Pharma — is the winner of the class, potentially leapfrogging an earlier entrant from Bristol Myers Squibb.

Pivotal data from the ELEVATE program in ulcerative colitis — which consists of two Phase III trials, one lasting 52 weeks and the other just 12 weeks — illustrate an “encouraging balance of efficacy and safety,” according to Michael Corbo, chief development officer of inflammation & immunology at Pfizer. The company is presenting the results as a late breaker at Digestive Disease Week.

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An NYU surgeon transplants an engineered pig kidney into the outside of a brain-dead patient (Joe Carrotta/NYU Langone Health)

'Xeno­trans­plan­ta­tion is com­ing': New NE­JM pa­per gives de­tailed look in­to 2 pig-to-hu­man kid­ney trans­plant cas­es

The thymokidney is a curious organ, if you could call it that. It’s a sort of Frankensteinian creation — a system of pig thymus embedded underneath the outer layer of a pig’s kidney, made for human transplantation.

In the first case of pig-to-human xenotransplantation of a kidney into a brain-dead patient, the thymokidney quietly featured front and center.

In that experiment, which took place in September of last year, NYU researchers led by Robert Montgomery sutured a pig thymokidney onto the leg of a brain-dead 66-year-old woman. That case was widely reported on by a horde of major media outlets, including the New York Times, the BBC, and an in-depth feature by USA Today.

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Vlad Coric, Biohaven CEO

UP­DAT­ED: Fresh off $11.6B sale to Pfiz­er, New Bio­haven hits Phase III set­back just weeks af­ter Vlad Coric chalked up promise

When Pfizer bought up Biohaven’s migraine portfolio in the largest M&A deal of the year earlier this month, Biohaven CEO Vlad Coric promised the rest of the pipeline, which will live on under the umbrella of New Biohaven, still has a lot to offer. But that vision took a dent Monday as the drugmaker revealed it’s once again flopped on troriluzole.

The glutamate regulator failed to meet the primary endpoint on a Phase III study in patients with spinocerebellar ataxia, an inherited disorder that impairs a person’s ability to walk, speak and swallow. SCA can also lead to premature death.

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Mihael Polymeropoulos, Vanda Pharmaceuticals CEO

Phar­ma com­pa­ny con­tin­ues its FDA law­suit spree, this time af­ter agency de­nies fast-track des­ig­na­tion

Vanda Pharmaceuticals is making a name for itself, at least in terms of suing the FDA.

The DC-headquartered firm on Monday filed its latest suit against the agency, with the company raising concerns over the FDA’s failure to grant a fast track designation for Vanda’s potential chronic digestive disorder drug tradipitant, which is a neurokinin 1 receptor antagonist.

Specifically, Vanda said FDA’s “essential point” in its one-page denial letter on the designation pointed to “the lack of necessary safety data,” which was “inconsistent with the criteria for … Fast Track designation.”

Mod­er­na seeks to dis­miss Al­ny­lam suit over Covid-19 vac­cine com­po­nent, claim­ing wrong venue

RNAi therapeutics juggernaut Alnylam Pharmaceuticals made a splash in March when it sued and sought money from both Pfizer and Moderna regarding their use of Alnylam’s biodegradable lipids, which Alnylam claims have been integral to the way both companies’ mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines work.

But now, Moderna lawyers are firing back, telling the same Delaware district court that Alnylam’s claims can only proceed against the US government in the Court of Federal Claims because of the way the company’s contract is set up with the US government. The US has spent almost $10 billion on Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine so far.

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Cracks in the fa­cade: Is phar­ma's pan­dem­ic ‘feel good fac­tor’ wan­ing?

The discordant effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on pharma reputation continues. While the overall industry still retains a respectable halo from its Covid-19 quick response and leadership, a new patient group study reveals a different story emerging in the details.

On one hand, US patient advocacy groups rated the industry higher-than-ever overall. More than two-thirds (67%) of groups gave the industry a thumbs up for 2021, a whopping 10 percentage point increase over the year before, according to the PatientView annual study, now in its 9th year.

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Saqib Islam, SpringWorks CEO

Pfiz­er spin­out Spring­Works will ship its first drug to the FDA be­fore year’s end with PhI­II win

SpringWorks Therapeutics thinks it has cemented the backbone for its first “pipeline-in-a-product” oncology treatment and will send it to the FDA before the clock strikes 2023 with a Phase III win on Tuesday.

The oral gamma secretase inhibitor, dubbed nirogacestat, beat placebo on the primary goal of progression-free survival in adults with progressing desmoid tumors.

The soft-tissue tumors can lead to long-lasting pain, disfigurement and amputation, and there are currently no approved meds for the rare oncology indication. The tumors typically impact patients aged 20 to 44 years old and disproportionately affect women at rates 2 to 3 times higher, with up to a total of 1,650 new cases diagnosed in the US annually, according to SpringWorks.