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.

Tal Zaks, Moderna CMO (Moderna via YouTube)

UP­DAT­ED: NI­AID and Mod­er­na spell out a 'ro­bust' im­mune re­sponse in PhI coro­n­avirus vac­cine test — but big ques­tions re­main to be an­swered

The NIAID and Moderna have spelled out positive Phase I safety and efficacy data for their Covid-19 vaccine mRNA-1273 — highlighting the first full, clear sketch of evidence that back-to-back jabs at the dose selected for Phase III routinely produced a swarm of antibodies to the virus that exceeded levels seen in convalescent patients — typically in multiples indicating a protective response.

Moderna execs say plainly that this first stage of research produced exactly the kind of efficacy they hoped to see in humans, with a manageable safety profile.

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Trans­port Sim­u­la­tion Test­ing for Your Ther­a­py is the Best Way to As­sure FDA Ex­pe­dit­ed Pro­gram Ap­proval

Modality Solutions is an ISO:9001-registered biopharmaceutical cold chain engineering firm with unique transport simulation capabilities that support accelerated regulatory approval for biologics and advanced therapeutic medicinal products (ATMP). Our expertise combines traditional validation engineering approaches with regulatory knowledge into a methodology tailored for the life sciences industry. We provide insight and execution for the challenges faced in your cold chain logistics network.

Tillman Gerngross, Adagio Therapeutics CEO

An­ti­body leg­end Till­man Gern­gross is el­bow­ing his way in­to the Covid-19 R&D cru­sade: 'I don’t see this end­ing any­time soon'

One of the most influential — and outspoken — scientists at work in the field of antibody discovery is jumping into the frenzied race to create new therapeutics to treat and prevent Covid-19. And he’s operating with the conviction that the current outbreak now once again spreading like wildfire will create plenty of demand for what he has in mind.

Dartmouth professor and Adimab CEO Tillman Gerngross tells me he’s raised $50 million from a group of close VCs to spin out a new company — Adagio Therapeutics — with a full C-suite team assembled to hire up a staff and keep rolling toward the clinic.

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Who are the women blaz­ing trails in bio­phar­ma R&D and lead­ing the fight against Covid-19? Nom­i­nate them for End­points' spe­cial re­port

One of the many inequalities the pandemic has laid bare is the gender imbalance in biomedical research. A paper examining Covid-19 research authorship wondered out loud: Where are the women?

It’s a question that echoes beyond our current times. In the biopharma world, not only are women under-represented in R&D roles (particularly at higher levels), their achievements and talents could also be undermined by stereotypes and norms of leadership styles. The problem is even more dire for women of color.

Full Bril­in­ta study re­sults show the blood thin­ner re­duces rate of sec­ondary stroke

AstraZeneca once projected its Brilinta drug to peak at $3.5 billion in sales, and though the blood thinner never reached that lofty goal, it received the latest positive signs in a string of recent good news.

The pharma released full details from its THALES study Thursday morning, which measured the effects of Brilinta and aspirin against aspirin alone in treating patients who had an acute ischemic stroke or transient ischemic attack. When taken twice daily with once-a-day aspirin for 30 days, the Brilinta combo reduced the risk of stroke and death by 17 percent, meeting the primary endpoint of the study.

Norbert Bischofberger, Kronos CEO

Gilead­'s ex-R&D chief Bischof­berg­er heads back to the biotech gi­ant to pick up a pair of late-stage drugs that had been put aside

Norbert Bischofberger knows entospletinib well.

Back during his long, blockbuster run as head of R&D at Gilead, researchers had once held some high hopes for this drug. But to make it work, he and the team felt it would need a new companion diagnostic to identify patients. There was talk of a combo approach to give it more punch. But the market was small, making them wonder if it would be worth going through a lengthy development cycle to get it through a pivotal.

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The $1B Mer­ck-Bay­er drug that di­vid­ed car­di­ol­o­gists in March gets pri­or­i­ty re­view

Three months after Merck published in the New England Journal of Medicine data that left doctors and investors divided over just how well its experimental heart drug worked, the FDA has handed that drug priority review. A decision is now due by January 20, 2021.

Merck first announced the drug, known as vericiguat, as a Phase III success last November. In 2016, Merck had paid $1 billion upfront for US rights to the Bayer-developed drug. Early projections foresaw a few hundred million a year in sales, but the unspecified late-stage success raised the possibility for far more. After all, Novartis’s flagship heart drug, Entresto, was earning $1.7 billion per year and was expected to reach up to $4 billion in annual sales.

GSK’s Shin­grix leader Guil­laume Pfe­fer has jumped on board Flag­ship to helm a biotech hy­brid as Afeyan’s lat­est CEO-part­ner

After spending 4 years in a senior post with GlaxoSmithKline’s star team positioning Shingrix for a blockbuster approval, Guillaume Pfefer is headed back to the biotech world — in style.

Pfefer has signed on to join Noubar Afeyan’s busy group of partners at Flagship, and he’s taking the helm of an upstart — which today is being merged with another Flagship startup — with some grand plans of its own. The announcement this morning notes that Pfefer will run Kintai Therapeutics, one of the grads of the Flagship labs.

Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci (AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Rus­sia hack­ers tar­get US, UK vac­cine and drug re­searchers; Fau­ci fires back at White House cam­paign to un­der­mine him

Russia has tried to steal a Covid-19 vaccine and therapeutics researcher from pharmaceutical and academic institutions in the US, UK and Canada, Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre said Thursday.

The NCSC said that hacking attempts came from a group known as APT129, also known as “Cozy Bear,” that “almost certainly operate as part of Russian intelligence services.” The Canadian Communication Security Establishment, US Department for Homeland Security, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, and the National Security Agency shared the assessment, the NCSC said.

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