Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down: The FDA dam­aged it­self bad­ly with the Sarep­ta OK

End­points as­sess­es the big bio­phar­ma R&D sto­ries of the week, with a lit­tle added com­men­tary on what they mean for the in­dus­try.


  Califf’s de­ci­sion to bow to Janet Wood­cock on Sarep­ta hurts the en­tire biotech in­dus­try.

Janet Wood­cock’s de­ci­sion to over­ride the caus­tic in­ter­nal crit­i­cism of Sarep­ta’s weak and at times mis­lead­ing case for its Duchenne drug eteplirsen has dam­aged the FDA in ways that will leave a mark for years to come. Over­rul­ing her col­leagues – in­clud­ing se­nior FDA of­fi­cials — to pro­vide an ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval this week for this ap­pli­ca­tion sends a clear mes­sage to biotech: If you can muster enough pub­lic sup­port for a cam­paign – which in­cludes an er­ro­neous study for bait — you should pro­ceed full steam ahead. To his cred­it, FDA com­mis­sion­er Robert Califf post­ed his own re­view of the case as well as the heat­ed ob­jec­tions of two top reg­u­la­tors, in­clud­ing the cur­rent act­ing chief sci­en­tist. Not to his cred­it, Califf chose to stand down in “def­er­ence” to Wood­cock’s in­tran­si­gence, but not be­fore chid­ing Sarep­ta for pro­mot­ing a study that raised false hopes in the pa­tient com­mu­ni­ty, which swal­lowed it all hook, line and sinker. He was al­so none too hap­py that Sarep­ta stayed fo­cused on its lob­by­ing cam­paign rather than the clin­i­cal work that need­ed to be done. I sin­cere­ly hope that eteplirsen does every­thing that ad­vo­cates de­vout­ly be­lieve it does, with­out pre­sent­ing the dan­gers cit­ed for a “sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly el­e­gant place­bo.” And let’s hope pa­tients aren’t left to cov­er any of the $300,000 an­nu­al cost. Pay­ers, and ul­ti­mate­ly so­ci­ety, can and should do that now. And what hap­pens next? Does the FDA now slap back the next com­pa­ny to use sim­i­lar tac­tics, to try and reestab­lish old bound­aries? Or does it low­er its stan­dards per­ma­nent­ly, en­cour­ag­ing more large demon­stra­tions and dodgy da­ta to back weak ap­pli­ca­tions? That’s a po­si­tion the FDA should nev­er have been put in. And that is on Janet Wood­cock and Robert Califf.


 The im­muno-on­col­o­gy rev­o­lu­tion will cause lots of pain, but it will be worth it.

We are liv­ing at the start of the im­muno-on­col­o­gy rev­o­lu­tion, and it’s been a re­al priv­i­lege cov­er­ing the ex­plo­sion of deals and col­lab­o­ra­tions that are be­ing struck now. Every day it seems brings one, or two, new I/O pacts. This week there was iOmx’s start­up round to fund the hunt for new check­point in­hibitors. Genen­tech struck a po­ten­tial­ly ground­break­ing part­ner­ship with BioN­Tech on us­ing mes­sen­ger RNA to de­vel­op per­son­al­ized can­cer vac­cines. With the three lead­ing check­points on the mar­ket and more com­ing, the po­ten­tial to part­ner on new com­bos is dri­ving bil­lions of dol­lars in fresh in­vest­ments. True, any­thing this hot will breed an ex­cess of al­ter­na­tives. In­vestors will get burned. The shake­out will have to oc­cur even­tu­al­ly and not every­one will suc­ceed. Many, most, will fail or fall by the way­side. But it’s been fun watch­ing the spot­light grow big­ger and more in­tense every week. I was chat­ting with an­oth­er CEO at a US start­up in this field ear­li­er in the week, and he be­lieves that we’re still just at the be­gin­ning of this i/o era. This will go on for an­oth­er 20 years, he says. And he’s like­ly right. What a great time to be in biotech.


 Set­backs hap­pen. It’s time for the big com­pa­nies to be more trans­par­ent about them.

Why do so many Big Phar­ma com­pa­nies have such a hard time talk­ing about a set­back? In re­cent times Am­gen nev­er missed a beat when it came to tout­ing their kid­ney dis­ease drug Parsabiv (etel­cal­ce­tide), and then the FDA un­ex­pect­ed­ly re­ject­ed it and the big biotech shut down, adopt­ing the tur­tle de­fense in re­fus­ing to even at­tempt to ex­plain it. No­var­tis likes to slip bad news in­to quar­ter­ly re­ports, in­clud­ing a line item on the re­cent re­jec­tion of one of its biosim­i­lars. And this week J&J could on­ly ac­knowl­edge, af­ter I con­tact­ed them, that the FDA had placed a hold on one of its can­cer drugs. They de­clined to ex­plain the se­ri­ous ad­verse events cit­ed on clin­i­cal­tri­als.gov that forced reg­u­la­tors’ hands. I’ve said it be­fore and no doubt will have plen­ty of oc­ca­sions to do it again, but com­pa­nies run­ning drug stud­ies have a re­spon­si­bil­i­ty to ex­plain these sna­fus in some de­tail. They owe it to their in­vestors, the peo­ple who sign up for all of their clin­i­cal stud­ies and the sci­en­tists try­ing to make safe progress in the same field. There’s far too lit­tle trans­paren­cy in drug de­vel­op­ment. At a time when the in­dus­try is look­ing for some un­der­stand­ing from the pub­lic on the cost of in­no­va­tion, big play­ers should al­so rec­og­nize that they can be lead­ers in own­ing up to what can go wrong in de­vel­op­ing a new drug. It won’t hurt as much as they ev­i­dent­ly think it will.

Vlad Coric (Biohaven)

In an­oth­er dis­ap­point­ment for in­vestors, FDA slaps down Bio­haven’s re­vised ver­sion of an old ALS drug

Biohaven is at risk of making a habit of disappointing its investors. 

Late Friday the biotech $BHVN reported that the FDA had rejected its application for riluzole, an old drug that they had made over into a sublingual formulation that dissolves under the tongue. According to Biohaven, the FDA had a problem with the active ingredient used in a bioequivalence study back in 2017, which they got from the Canadian drugmaker Apotex.

Francesco De Rubertis

Medicxi is rolling out its biggest fund ever to back Eu­rope's top 'sci­en­tists with strange ideas'

Francesco De Rubertis built Medicxi to be the kind of biotech venture player he would have liked to have known back when he was a full time scientist.

“When I was a scientist 20 years ago I would have loved Medicxi,’ the co-founder tells me. It’s the kind of place run by and for investigators, what the Medicxi partner calls “scientists with strange ideas — a platform for the drug hunter and scientific entrepreneur. That’s what I wanted when I was a scientist.”

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Af­ter a decade, Vi­iV CSO John Pot­tage says it's time to step down — and he's hand­ing the job to long­time col­league Kim Smith

ViiV Healthcare has always been something unique in the global drug industry.

Owned by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer — with GSK in the lead as majority owner — it was created 10 years ago in a time of deep turmoil for the field as something independent of the pharma giants, but with access to lots of infrastructural support on demand. While R&D at the mother ship inside GSK was souring, a razor-focused ViiV provided a rare bright spot, challenging Gilead on a lucrative front in delivering new combinations that require fewer therapies with a more easily tolerated regimen.

They kept a massive number of people alive who would otherwise have been facing a death sentence. And they made money.

And throughout, John Pottage has been the chief scientific and chief medical officer.

Until now.

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Chas­ing Roche's ag­ing block­buster fran­chise, Am­gen/Al­ler­gan roll out Avastin, Her­ceptin knock­offs at dis­count

Let the long battle for biosimilars in the cancer space begin.

Amgen has launched its Avastin and Herceptin copycats — licensed from the predecessors of Allergan — almost two years after the FDA had stamped its approval on Mvasi (bevacizumab-awwb) and three months after the Kanjinti OK (trastuzumab-anns). While the biotech had been fielding biosimilars in Europe, this marks their first foray in the US — and the first oncology biosimilars in the country.

Seer adds ex-FDA chief Mark Mc­Clel­lan to the board; Her­cules Cap­i­tal makes it of­fi­cial for new CEO Scott Bluestein

→ On the same day it announced a $17.5 million Series C, life sciences and health data company Seer unveiled that it had lured former FDA commissioner and ex-CMS administrator Mark McClellan on to its board. “Mark’s deep understanding of the health care ecosystem and visionary insights on policy reform will be crucial in informing our thinking as we work to bring our liquid biopsy and life sciences products to market,” said Seer chief and founder Omid Farokhzad in a statement.

Daniel O'Day

No­var­tis hands off 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams to the an­tivi­ral R&D mas­ters at Gilead

Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day’s new task hunting up a CSO for the company isn’t stopping the industry’s dominant antiviral player from doing pipeline deals.

The big biotech today snapped up 3 preclinical antiviral programs from pharma giant Novartis, with drugs promising to treat human rhinovirus, influenza and herpes viruses. We don’t know what the upfront is, but the back end has $291 million in milestones baked in.

Vas Narasimhan, AP Images

On a hot streak, No­var­tis ex­ecs run the odds on their two most im­por­tant PhI­II read­outs. Which is 0.01% more like­ly to suc­ceed?

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan is living in the sweet spot right now.

The numbers are running a bit better than expected, the pipeline — which he assembled as development chief — is performing and the stock popped more than 4% on Thursday as the executive team ran through their assessment of Q2 performance.

Year-to-date the stock is up 28%, so the investors will be beaming. Anyone looking for chinks in their armor — and there are plenty giving it a shot — right now focus on payer acceptance of their $2.1 million gene therapy Zolgensma, where it’s early days. And CAR-T continues to underperform, but Novartis doesn’t appear to be suffering from it.

So what could go wrong?

Actually, not much. But Tim Anderson at Wolfe pressed Narasimhan and his development chief John Tsai to pick which of two looming Phase III readouts with blockbuster implication had the better odds of success.

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H1 analy­sis: The high-stakes ta­ble in the biotech deals casi­no is pay­ing out some record-set­ting win­nings

For years the big trend among dealmakers at the major players has been centered on ratcheting down upfront payments in favor of bigger milestones. Better known as biobucks for some. But with the top 15 companies competing for the kind of “transformative” pacts that can whip up some excitement on Wall Street, with some big biotechs like Regeneron now weighing in as well, cash is king at the high stakes table.

We asked Chris Dokomajilar, the head of DealForma, to crunch the numbers for us, looking over the top 20 deals for the past decade and breaking it all down into the top alliances already created in 2019. Gilead has clearly tipped the scales in terms of the coin of the bio-realm, with its record-setting $5 billion upfront to tie up to Galapagos’ entire pipeline.

Dokomajilar notes:

We’re going to need a ‘three comma club’ for the deals with over $1 billion in total upfront cash and equity. The $100 million-plus club is getting crowded at 164 deals in the last decade with new deals being added towards the top of the chart. 2019 already has 14 deals with at least $100 million in upfront cash and equity for a total year-to-date of over $9 billion. That beats last year’s $8 billion and sets a record.

Add upfronts and equity payments and you get $11.5 billion for the year, just shy of last year’s record-setting $11.8 billion.

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Part club, part guide, part land­lord: Arie Bellde­grun is blue­print­ing a string of be­spoke biotech com­plex­es in glob­al boom­towns — start­ing with Boston

The biotech industry is getting a landlord, unlike anything it’s ever known before.

Inspired by his recent experiences scrounging for space in Boston and the Bay Area, master biotech builder, investor, and global dealmaker Arie Belldegrun has organized a new venture to build a new, 250,000 square foot biopharma building in Boston’s Seaport district — home to Vertex and a number of up-and-coming biotech players.

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