With hits and miss­es in first piv­otal tri­als, J&J con­fi­dent­ly maps a path to the FDA with its ma­jor de­pres­sion med es­ke­t­a­mine

J&J re­searchers rolled out da­ta from the first two piv­otal tri­als of their an­ti-de­pres­sion drug es­ke­t­a­mine to­day, blaz­ing a trail that they say leads straight to an FDA fil­ing in a mat­ter of months with a ground­break­ing ap­proach to treat­ing ma­jor de­pres­sion.

The da­ta are mixed, with some hits and miss­es, as you’ll see fur­ther be­low as I set out the da­ta points. But there are some im­por­tant caveats to note about the num­bers for a low-dose, in­tranasal for­mu­la­tion of a pow­er­ful anes­thet­ic and fre­quent­ly abused par­ty drug — bet­ter known as Spe­cial K — which will in­vite a very care­ful ex­am­i­na­tion by reg­u­la­tors.

First, and fore­most, the FDA doesn’t re­quire per­fec­tion in de­pres­sion stud­ies, a field where a high place­bo re­sponse is a vir­tu­al giv­en. Be­cause these were hard-to-treat pa­tients, they couldn’t re­serve sole­ly a place­bo for the con­trol arm of the stud­ies. One group re­ceived es­ke­t­a­mine in a nasal spray with an ac­tive de­pres­sion drug while the con­trol arm was giv­en an ac­tive de­pres­sion drug — invit­ing a high re­sponse in the con­trol group, which they got.

Nev­er­the­less, they still beat the con­trol group re­sponse in the first key Phase III. And the in­ves­ti­ga­tors say that stud­ies read­ing out in the next few months will com­plete a pic­ture of pos­i­tive re­sults that reg­u­la­tors will not be able to re­ject for these pa­tients.

“We be­lieve with these stud­ies that we’re go­ing to meet that hur­dle,” says David Hough, Janssen’s clin­i­cal tri­al leader for es­ke­t­a­mine.


The first study among pa­tients with hard-to-treat ma­jor de­pres­sion hit a clear­ly sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant re­sult for the com­mon­ly used Mont­gomery-Ås­berg De­pres­sion Rat­ing Scale, or MADRS. And a low dose ver­sion used in el­der­ly pa­tients missed sta­tis­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance — they hit a p-val­ue of 0.029 in a tri­al that set the bar for sig­nif­i­cance at 0.025.

The first study al­so missed a key sec­ondary: on­set of clin­i­cal ef­fect in 24 hours main­tained through 28 days in a rel­a­tive­ly short tri­al. And be­cause of that miss they couldn’t for­mal­ly present da­ta on the next two sec­on­daries.

Two oth­er key mea­sures scored for the es­ke­t­a­mine com­bo.

  • There was a 69.3% re­sponse rate in the es­ke­t­a­mine/de­pres­sion drug com­bo group ver­sus a (very high) 52% in the con­trol group at 28 days.
  • The re­mis­sion rate at day 28 was 52.5% for the es­ke­t­a­mine com­bo and 31% for the es­ke­t­a­mine and place­bo nasal spray group.

“This is not gar­den va­ri­ety de­pres­sion,” says Hough. The pa­tients in these stud­ies had tried and failed any­where from two to 5 dif­fer­ent de­pres­sion meds.

Among the side ef­fects of the es­ke­t­a­mine com­bi­na­tion, re­searchers found that some pa­tients suf­fered from dis­so­ci­a­tion, not un­ex­pect­ed in a drug that at high dos­es is some­times used to in­duce schiz­o­phrenic be­hav­ior in clin­i­cal tri­als. J&J’s ap­proach to that will be to pro­vide this drug on­ly un­der care­ful su­per­vi­sion in a clin­i­cal set­ting. That might com­pli­cate mar­ket­ing, if ap­proved, but in a time of wide­spread opi­oid abuse, J&J knows there will be care­ful clin­i­cal re­stric­tions on dis­tri­b­u­tion.

If ap­proved, Hough says the plan would be to use the drug twice a week ini­tial­ly for 4 weeks and then start low­er­ing the fre­quen­cy un­til they get the right main­te­nance lev­el.

If they can win here, they add, this will be the first new drug for treat­ment-re­sis­tant cas­es of ma­jor de­pres­sion in decades.

“We were very pleased,” says Hough, who’s prep­ping the roll­out on more promis­ing da­ta from three more stud­ies.

Over the years a host of aca­d­e­mics have re­peat­ed­ly seen ke­t­a­mine score high for swift if tem­po­rary treat­ment of de­pres­sion and sui­ci­dal think­ing. But its pow­er­ful ef­fects over­all pre­vent its use. That’s what set J&J down this path with a low-dose ver­sion of the drug, while Al­ler­gan and oth­ers are test­ing NM­DA drugs that mim­ic par­tic­u­lar as­pects of the par­ty drug, look­ing for a nar­row hit on de­pres­sion with­out the il­lic­it side ef­fects.

The Price of Re­lief: Ex­plor­ing So­lu­tions to the Ris­ing Costs of On­col­o­gy Drugs

In 2020, The National Cancer Institute estimated about 1.8 million new cases of cancer diagnosed in the United States, while the costs associated with treatment therapies continued to escalate. Given the current legislative climate on drug pricing, it’s never been more important to look at the evolution of drug pricing globally and control concerns of sustainable and affordable treatments in oncology.

Lat­est news on Pfiz­er's $3B+ JAK1 win; Pacts over M&A at #JPM22; 2021 by the num­bers; Bio­gen's Aduhelm reck­on­ing; The sto­ry of sotro­vimab; 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.

For those of you who attended #JPM22 in any shape or form, we hope you had a fruitful time. Regardless of how you spent the past hectic week, may your weekend be just what you need it to be.

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Susan Galbraith, AstraZeneca EVP, Oncology R&D

Can­cer pow­er­house As­traZeneca rolls the dice on a $75M cash bet on a buzzy up­start in the on­col­o­gy field

After establishing itself in the front ranks of cancer drug developers and marketers, AstraZeneca is putting its scientific shoulder — and a significant amount of cash — behind the wheel of a brash new upstart in the biotech world.

The pharma giant trumpeted news this morning that it is handing over $75 million upfront to ally itself with Scorpion Therapeutics, one of those biotechs that was newly birthed by some top scientific, venture and executive talent and bequeathed with a fortune by way of a bankroll to advance an only hazily explained drug platform. And they are still very much in the discovery and preclinical phase.

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A $3B+ peak sales win? Pfiz­er thinks so, as FDA of­fers a tardy green light to its JAK1 drug abroc­i­tinib

Back in the fall of 2020, newly crowned Pfizer chief Albert Bourla confidently put their JAK1 inhibitor abrocitinib at the top of the list of blockbuster drugs in the late-stage pipeline with a $3 billion-plus peak sales estimate.

Since then it’s been subjected to serious criticism for the safety warnings associated with the class, held back by a cautious FDA and questioned when researchers rolled out a top-line boast that their heavyweight contender had beaten the champ in the field of atopic dermatitis — Dupixent — in a head-to-head study.

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Robert Califf, FDA commissioner nominee (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Rob Califf ad­vances as Biden's FDA nom­i­nee, with a close com­mit­tee vote

Rob Califf’s second confirmation process as FDA commissioner is already much more difficult than his near unanimous confirmation under the Obama administration.

The Senate Health Committee on Thursday voted 13-8 in favor of advancing Califf’s nomination to a full Senate vote. Several Democrats voted against Califf, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Maggie Hassan. Several other Democrats who aren’t on the committee, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, also said Thursday that they would not vote for Califf. Markey, Hassan and Manchin all previously expressed reservations about the prospect of Janet Woodcock as an FDA commissioner nominee too.

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Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard)

Bio­gen vows to fight CM­S' draft cov­er­age de­ci­sion for Aduhelm be­fore April fi­nal­iza­tion

Biogen executives made clear in an investor call Thursday they are not preparing to run a new CMS-approved clinical trial for their controversial Alzheimer’s drug anytime soon.

As requested in a draft national coverage decision from CMS earlier this week, Biogen and other anti-amyloid drugs will need to show “a meaningful improvement in health outcomes” for Alzheimer’s patients in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to get paid for their drugs, rather than just the reduction in amyloid plaques that won Aduhelm its accelerated approval in June.

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CRO own­er pleads guilty to ob­struct­ing FDA in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to fal­si­fied clin­i­cal tri­al da­ta

The co-owner of a Florida-based clinical research site pleaded guilty to lying to an FDA investigator during a 2017 inspection, revealing that she falsely portrayed part of a GlaxoSmithKline pediatric asthma study as legitimate, when in fact she knew that certain data had been falsified, the Department of Justice said Wednesday.

Three other employees — Yvelice Villaman Bencosme, Lisett Raventos and Maytee Lledo — previously pleaded guilty and were sentenced in connection with falsifying data associated with the trial at the CRO Unlimited Medical Research.

‘Skin­ny la­bels’ on gener­ics can save pa­tients mon­ey, re­search shows, but re­cent court de­ci­sions cloud fu­ture

New research shows how generic drug companies can successfully market a limited number of approved indications for a brand name drug, prior to coming to market for all of the indications. But several recent court decisions have created a layer of uncertainty around these so-called “skinny” labels.

While courts have generally allowed generic manufacturers to use their statutorily permitted skinny-label approvals, last summer, a federal circuit court found that Teva Pharmaceuticals was liable for inducing prescribers and patients to infringe GlaxoSmithKline’s patents through advertising and marketing practices that suggested Teva’s generic, with its skinny label, could be employed for the patented uses.

A patient in Alaska receiving an antibody infusion to prevent Covid hospitalizations in September. All but one of these treatments has been rendered useless by Omicron (Rick Bowmer/AP Images)

How a tiny Swiss lab and two old blood sam­ples cre­at­ed one of the on­ly ef­fec­tive drugs against Omi­cron (and why we have so lit­tle of it)

Exactly a decade before a novel coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, Davide Corti — a newly-minted immunologist with frameless glasses and a quick laugh — walked into a cramped lab on the top floor of an office building two hours outside Zurich. He had only enough money for two technicians and the ceiling was so low in parts that short stature was a job requirement, but Corti believed it’d be enough to test an idea he thought could change medicine.

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