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 top 10 block­buster drugs in the late-stage pipeline — Eval­u­ate adds 6 new ther­a­pies to heavy-hit­ter list

Vertex comes in for a substantial amount of criticism for its no-holds-barred tactical approach toward wresting the price it wants for its commercial drugs in Europe. But the flip side of that coin is a highly admired R&D and commercial operation that regularly wins kudos from analysts for their ability to engineer greater cash flow from the breakthrough drugs they create.

Both aspects needed for success in this business are on display in the program backing Vertex’s triple for cystic fibrosis. VX-659/VX-445 + Tezacaftor + Ivacaftor — it’s been whittled down to 445 now — was singled out by Evaluate Pharma as the late-stage therapy most likely to win the crown for drug sales in 5 years, with a projected peak revenue forecast of $4.3 billion.

The latest annual list, which you can see here in their latest world preview, includes a roster of some of the most closely watched development programs in biopharma. And Evaluate has added 6 must-watch experimental drugs to the top 10 as drugs fail or go on to a first approval. With apologies to the list maker, I revamped this to rank the top 10 by projected 2024 sales, instead of Evaluate's net present value rankings.

It's how we roll at Endpoints News.

Here is a quick summary of the rest of the top 10:

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Neil Woodford. Woodford Investment Management via YouTube

Wood­ford braces po­lit­i­cal storm as UK fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tors scru­ti­nize fund sus­pen­sion

The shock of Neil Wood­ford’s de­ci­sion to block with­drawals for his flag­ship fund is still rip­pling through the rest of his port­fo­lio — and be­yond. Un­der po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, UK fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tors are now tak­ing a hard look while in­vestors con­tin­ue to flee.

In a re­sponse let­ter to an MP, the Fi­nan­cial Con­duct Au­thor­i­ty re­vealed that it’s opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to the sus­pen­sion fol­low­ing months of en­gage­ment with Link Fund So­lu­tions, which tech­ni­cal­ly del­e­gat­ed Wood­ford’s firm to man­age its funds.

Gilead baits new al­liance with $45M up­front, div­ing in­to the busy pro­tein degra­da­tion field

Gilead is jump­ing on board the pro­tein degra­da­tion band­wag­on. And they’re turn­ing to a low-pro­file Third Rock start­up for the ex­per­tise. But if you were look­ing for a trans­for­ma­tion­al deal to kick up fresh en­thu­si­asm for Gilead, you’ll have to re­main pa­tient.

This one will have a long way to go be­fore they get in­to the clin­ic.

The big biotech said Wednes­day morn­ing that it is pay­ing $45 mil­lion up­front and re­serv­ing a whop­ping $2.3 bil­lion in biotech bucks if San Fran­cis­co-based Nurix can point the way to new can­cer ther­a­pies, as well as drugs for oth­er, un­spec­i­fied dis­eases.

A new num­ber 1 drug? Keytru­da tapped to top the 10 biggest block­busters on the world stage by 2024

Analysts may be fretting about Keytruda’s longterm prospects as a host of rival therapies elbow their way to the market. But the folks at Evaluate Pharma are confident that last year’s $7 billion earner is headed for glory, tapping it to beat out the current #1 therapy Humira as AbbVie watches that franchise swoon over the next 5 years.

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In­vestor day prep at Mer­ck in­cludes a new strat­e­gy to pick up the pace on M&A — re­port

Mer­ck’s re­cent deals to buy up two bolt-on biotechs — Ti­los and Pelo­ton — weren’t an aber­ra­tion. In­stead, both ac­qui­si­tions mark a new strat­e­gy to beef up its dom­i­nant can­cer drug op­er­a­tions cen­tered on Keytru­da while look­ing to ad­dress grow­ing con­cerns that too many of its eggs are in the one I/O bas­ket for their PD-1 pro­gram. And Mer­ck is go­ing af­ter more small- and mid-sized buy­outs to calm those fears.

John Chiminski, Catalent CEO - File Photo

'It's a growth play': Catal­ent ac­quires Bris­tol-My­er­s' Eu­ro­pean launch pad, ex­pand­ing glob­al CD­MO ops

Catalent is staying on the growth track.

Just two months after committing $1.2 billion to pick up Paragon and take a deep dive into the sizzling hot gene therapy manufacturing sector, the CDMO is bouncing right back with a deal to buy out Bristol-Myers’ central launchpad for new therapies in Europe, acquiring a complex in Anagni, Italy, southwest of Rome, that will significantly expand its capacity on the continent.

There are no terms being offered, but this is no small deal. The Anagni campus employs some 700 staffers, and Catalent is planning to go right in — once the deal closes late this year — with a blueprint to build up the operations further as they expand on oral solid, biologics, and sterile product manufacturing and packaging.

This is an uncommon deal, Catalent CEO John Chiminski tells me. But it offers a shortcut for rapid growth that cuts years out of developing a green fields project. That’s time Catalent doesn’t have as the industry undergoes unprecedented expansion around the world.

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Arc­turus ex­pands col­lab­o­ra­tion, adding $30M cash; Ku­ra shoots for $100M raise

→  Rare dis­ease play­er Ul­tragenyx $RARE is ex­pand­ing its al­liance with Arc­turus $ARCT, pay­ing $24 mil­lion for eq­ui­ty and an­oth­er $6 mil­lion in an up­front as the two part­ners ex­pand their col­lab­o­ra­tion to in­clude up to 12 tar­gets. “This ex­pand­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion fur­ther so­lid­i­fies our mR­NA plat­form by adding ad­di­tion­al tar­gets and ex­pand­ing our abil­i­ty to po­ten­tial­ly treat more dis­eases,” said Emil Kakkis, the CEO at Ul­tragenyx. “We are pleased with the progress of our on­go­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion. Our most ad­vanced mR­NA pro­gram, UX053 for the treat­ment of Glyco­gen Stor­age Dis­ease Type III, is ex­pect­ed to move in­to the clin­ic next year, and we look for­ward to fur­ther build­ing up­on the ini­tial suc­cess of this part­ner­ship.”

UP­DAT­ED: Chica­go biotech ar­gues blue­bird, Third Rock 'killed' its ri­val, pi­o­neer­ing tha­lassemia gene ther­a­py in law­suit

Blue­bird bio $BLUE chief Nick Leschly court­ed con­tro­ver­sy last week when he re­vealed the com­pa­ny’s be­ta tha­lassemia treat­ment will car­ry a jaw-drop­ping $1.8 mil­lion price tag over a 5-year pe­ri­od in Eu­rope — mak­ing it the plan­et’s sec­ond most ex­pen­sive ther­a­py be­hind No­var­tis’ $NVS fresh­ly ap­proved spinal mus­cu­lar at­ro­phy ther­a­py, Zol­gens­ma, at $2.1 mil­lion. A Chica­go biotech, mean­while, has been fum­ing at the side­lines. In a law­suit filed ear­li­er this month, Er­rant Gene Ther­a­peu­tics al­leged that blue­bird and ven­ture cap­i­tal group Third Rock un­law­ful­ly prised a vi­ral vec­tor, de­vel­oped in part­ner­ship with the Memo­r­i­al Sloan Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter (MSK), from its grasp, and thwart­ed the de­vel­op­ment of its sem­i­nal gene ther­a­py.

Dave Barrett, Brian Chee, Amir Nashat, Amy Schulman. Polaris

Bob Langer's first port of call — Po­laris Part­ners — maps $400M for ninth fund

Health and tech ven­ture group Po­laris Part­ners, which counts Alec­tor, Al­ny­lam and Ed­i­tas Med­i­cine as part of its port­fo­lio, is set­ting up its ninth fund, rough­ly two years af­ter it closed Po­laris VI­II with $435 mil­lion in the bank, sur­pass­ing its tar­get by $35 mil­lion.

The Boston-based firm, in an SEC fil­ing, said it in­tends to raise $400 mil­lion for the fund. Po­laris — which rou­tine­ly backs com­pa­nies mold­ed out of the work done in the lab of pro­lif­ic sci­en­tist Bob Langer of MIT  — typ­i­cal­ly in­vests ear­ly, and sticks around till com­pa­nies are in the green. Like its peers at Flag­ship and Third Rock, Po­laris is all about cham­pi­oning the lo­cal biotech scene with a steady flow of start­up cash.