Top FDA of­fi­cial ac­cused CDER chief Wood­cock of ap­pear­ing bi­ased, brow­beat­ing re­view­ers in de­mand­ing eteplirsen OK

While FDA com­mis­sion­er Rob Califf was try­ing to nav­i­gate an in­ter­nal civ­il war at the agency over its con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion to pro­vide an ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval for Sarep­ta’s eteplirsen, John Jenk­ins, then head of the Of­fice of New Drugs, sent him a memo which de­tailed a blis­ter­ing at­tack on CDER chief Janet Wood­cock.

Janet Wood­cock

It was Wood­cock who de­mand­ed, and won, the ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of an ac­cel­er­at­ed OK of the Duchenne mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy drug.

But Jenk­ins, who sided with oth­er top of­fi­cials at the FDA in op­pos­ing the ap­proval, says that Wood­cock cre­at­ed an “ap­pear­ance of bias” in push­ing for the ap­proval from an ear­ly point. Wood­cock, he wrote Califf in a memo dat­ed Sep­tem­ber 14, 2016, left the FDA re­view team feel­ing pres­sured to come over to her side. And she by­passed the usu­al chain of com­mand to get what she want­ed, in­sist­ing on an ap­proval even be­fore the re­view team had com­plet­ed its task and leav­ing them dis­trust­ful of her role and man­ner.

Not on­ly did Jenk­ins ob­ject to Wood­cock’s han­dling of eteplirsen, a drug which had the vo­cal sup­port of the Duchenne com­mu­ni­ty, he al­so told Califf that he had de­layed his re­tire­ment specif­i­cal­ly be­cause Wood­cock in­tend­ed to take his place af­ter he left. And that is ex­act­ly what she did.

The memo was high­light­ed in a re­port by Charles Seife on Un­dark, an on­line site that al­so in­clud­ed a copy of the full let­ter. You can read the whole doc­u­ment here.

While Califf pub­lished much of the doc­u­men­ta­tion around the dis­pute, this par­tic­u­lar memo did not sur­face un­til Seife’s FOIA law­suit forced it out. And it in­cludes the re­mark­able sug­ges­tion that Califf should coun­sel the pow­er­ful CDER chief on her man­ner and her meth­ods.

Jenk­ins has since re­tired from the FDA, but he de­clined to talk to Seife, as did Wood­cock. But his memo de­serves care­ful at­ten­tion. One ex­cerpt:

John Jenk­ins

On page 4, you state “there is al­so abun­dant ev­i­dence that Dr. Wood­cock heard and read FDACDER0001 all the sci­en­tif­ic ev­i­dence…” This im­plies she took these ac­tions BE­FORE reach­ing a de­ci­sion on the ap­pli­ca­tion, which is clear­ly not cor­rect giv­en her state­ment to the re­view team of her in­ten­tion to over­rule them and ap­prove the drug BE­FORE they had com­plet­ed their re­views. Keep in mind this oc­curred af­ter an AC (ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee) meet­ing at which the ma­jor­i­ty of the pan­el vot­ed against both AA and full ap­proval. It is al­so clear that she was pre­pared to ap­prove the drug over the team’s ob­jec­tions by the orig­i­nal PDU­FA goal date and on­ly re­luc­tant­ly agreed to press the spon­sor for ad­di­tion­al da­ta on dy­s­trophin pro­duc­tion from the on­go­ing open-la­bel tri­al. While I am glad she agreed to go along with that re­quest, con­vinc­ing her to take what seemed like a very log­i­cal ac­tion was not easy. So, I find it hard to rec­on­cile your state­ments about the process with the ac­tions tak­en. Keep in mind that the usu­al course of ac­tion would be for the Of­fice to is­sue a CR let­ter and then the spon­sor could sub­mit a FDRR that would first come to me and on­ly if I sup­port­ed the Of­fice would an FDRR go to the Cen­ter Di­rec­tor. In this case that process was by­passed.

His memo goes on to out­line his con­cerns about the com­plete lack of da­ta on ef­fi­ca­cy as well as con­cerns that ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval would clear­ly low­er the bar at the agency on a new drug OK.

Al­so on page 9 it is iron­ic that you at­tribute to Janet the idea of ran­dom­iz­ing ear­ly in or­der to gen­er­ate good ev­i­dence. That is ex­act­ly what the re­view team planned to re­quire of Sarep­ta af­ter the re­sults of the 12-pa­tient study be­came avail­able, but it was Janet that pressed that a new ran­dom­ized tri­al not be re­quired. So, if Janet had fol­lowed the nor­mal CDER process in this case the re­view team would have re­quired place­bo-con­trolled tri­als, as they did for dris­apersen and we would have bet­ter da­ta on which to make a de­ci­sion.

Jenk­ins stops one step short of ac­cus­ing Wood­cock of bul­ly­ing the staff.

While I un­der­stand your de­sire not to un­der­cut her role as Cen­ter Di­rec­tor, her ac­tions have at best cre­at­ed a serous …ap­pear­ance of bias among the re­view team mem­bers and that has cre­at­ed dis­trust and a sense of un­due pres­sure to “come around” to her way of think­ing. Even if you up­hold her de­ci­sion I would think you should coun­sel her about how her be­hav­ior and ac­tions have un­der­mined her cred­i­bil­i­ty among the re­view staff and should be avoid­ed in fu­ture sim­i­lar cas­es. Ef­fec­tive lead­ers must have the trust and re­spect of their staff.

Lat­er, just be­fore he re­tired, Jenk­ins gave a speech in which he tried to warn oth­er drug de­vel­op­ers to avoid try­ing to fol­low the same path that Sarep­ta took. But he was clear­ly con­cerned about the fu­ture:

As you know, I had planned to re­tire from FDA last spring. I have de­layed my de­par­ture for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, but one of the most im­por­tant rea­sons is that Janet has told me she plans to serve as act­ing in my place as head of OND once I leave. I am very con­cerned about the im­pact of that de­ci­sion on the fu­ture of the new drugs re­view pro­gram and would be hap­py to dis­cuss those con­cerns fur­ther.

Norbert Bischofberger. Kronos

Backed by some of the biggest names in biotech, Nor­bert Bischof­berg­er gets his megaround for plat­form tech out of MIT

A little over a year ago when I reported on Norbert Bischofberger’s jump from the CSO job at giant Gilead to a tiny upstart called Kronos, I noted that with his connections in biotech finance, that $18 million launch round he was starting off with could just as easily have been $100 million or more.

With his first anniversary now behind him, Bischofberger has that mega-round in the bank. 

Once again Bischofberger and his old boss, former Gilead chief John Martin, added their own money to the new $105 million raise aimed at building up their R&D engine and the team who’s doing the drug discovery work — on both coasts. Also coming back is Arie Belldegrun, the biotech builder who sold Kite to Gilead for $12 billion, and now plays the role of global wheeler dealer who’s taking a shot at cracking the off-the-shelf CAR-T challenge at Allogene.

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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Novotech CRO Ex­pands Chi­na Team as Biotech De­mand for Clin­i­cal Tri­als In­creas­es up to 79%

An increase in demand of up to 79% for clinical trials in China has prompted Novotech the Asia-Pacific CRO to rapidly expand the China team, appointing expert local clinical executives to their Shanghai and Hong Kong offices. The company is planning to expand their team by 30% over the next quarter.

Novotech China has seen considerable demand recently which is borne out by research from GlobalData:
A global migration of clinical research is occurring from high-income countries to low and middle-income countries with emerging economies. Over the period 2017 to 2018, for example, the number of clinical trial sites opened by biotech companies in Asia-Pacific increased by 35% compared to 8% in the rest of the world, with growth as high as 79% in China.
Novotech CEO Dr John Moller said China offers the largest population in the world, rapid economic growth, and an increasing willingness by government to invest in research and development.
Novotech’s 23 years of experience working in the region means we are the ideal CRO partner for USA biotechs wanting to tap the research expertise and opportunities that China offers.
There are over 22,000 active investigators in Greater China, with about 5,000 investigators with experience on at least 3 studies (source GlobalData).

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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UP­DAT­ED: With loom­ing ‘apoc­a­lypse of drug re­sis­tance,’ Mer­ck’s com­bi­na­tion an­tibi­ot­ic scores FDA ap­proval on two fronts

Merck — one of the last large biopharmaceuticals companies in the beleaguered field of antibiotic drug development — on Wednesday said the FDA had sanctioned the approval of its combination antibacterial for the treatment of complicated urinary tract and intra-abdominal infections.

To curb the rise of drug-resistant bacteria and maintain the efficacy of the therapy, Recarbrio (and other antibacterials) — the drug must be used to treat or prevent infections that are proven or strongly suspected to be caused by susceptible gram-negative bacteria, Merck $MRK said.

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John McHutchison in 2012. Getty Images

The $1.1M good­bye: Gilead CSO John McHutchi­son is out as Daniel O’Day shakes up the se­nior team

Just a little more than a year after John McHutchison grabbed a promotion to become CSO at Gilead in the wake of Norbert Bischofberger’s exit, he’s out amid a shakeup of the senior team that is also triggering the departure of two other top execs.

Gilead stated that McHutchison “has decided to step down” from the job as of August 2nd. And their SEC filing notes that he’ll be getting a $1.1 million check to settle up on his contract.

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Thomas Gajewski, David Steinberg. (CRI, Pyxis)

Bay­er, Long­wood back star re­searcher's deep dive in­to the tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ment for new I/O tar­gets

From PD-1 targeting to the RAS pathway to the STING complex, Thomas Gajewski has spent the past two decades of his career decoding the various ways the immune system can be unleashed to defend against cancer. So when the University of Chicago professor comes around to putting all his findings into a new platform for finding new targets, VCs and pharma groups alike pay attention.

“He’s been studying T cells for 20 years, plus he’s one of the world’s leaders if not the world leader in the space,” David Steinberg, partner at Longwood Fund, said. “Furthermore, let me add he did a lot of the foundational research and also some of the seminal clinical trials in the existing set of I/O agents. He understands the space really well, he understands the current strengths, and I think he understood really well what was missing, so he knew where to look.”

Kamala Harris speaking yesterday at the Des Moines Register Iowa Presidential Candidate Forum [via Getty]

Who’s the tough­est on drug prices? A game of po­lit­i­cal one-up­man­ship is dri­ving the pol­i­cy de­bate in Wash­ing­ton

Earlier this week we got a look at Senator Kamala Harris’ position on drug prices. She’s proposing that HHS take an average price from single-payer systems like the UK, Germany and Canada — which leverage market access for lower prices — and use that to set the US price. Anything drug companies collect above that would be taxed at a rate of 100%.

And the rhetoric is scathing:
While families struggle to make it to the end of the month, pharmaceutical companies are turning record profits. They’re spending nearly as much on advertising as R&D. They’re manipulating their market power to hike prices on lifesaving generic drugs. They’re making twice the profit of the average industry in America and still increased drug prices by 10.5% over the past six months alone. Meanwhile, they are charging dramatically higher prices to American consumers.
That’s an escalation on Joe Biden’s plan, which includes drug importation from those cheaper markets as well as allowing Medicare to negotiate prices — something that virtually all Dems agree on now.

SJ Lee [File photo]

Go­ing in­side cells, Sung Joo Lee has sketched some big goals for his small — but glob­al — team of drug hunters

For a small biotech based in South Korea with a research arm in Cambridge, MA, Orum Therapeutics has sketched out some big goals aimed at developing antibodies for intracellular targets. And now they have a new $30 million round to push the work forward, aiming at a slate of currently undruggable quests.

Orum has been working on a platform tech out of Ajou University that relies on endocytosis to smuggle antibodies and their cargo inside a cell. They’ve published work in Nature that illustrates its preclinical potential in RAS mutations, and KRAS is on their list of targets. 

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