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.

Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

Roivant par­lays a $450M chunk of eq­ui­ty in biotech buy­out, grab­bing a com­pu­ta­tion­al group to dri­ve dis­cov­ery work

New Roivant CEO Matt Gline has crafted an all-equity upfront deal to buy out a Boston-based biotech that has been toiling for several years now at building a supercomputing-based computational platform to design new drugs. And he’s adding it to the Erector set of science operations that are being built up to support their network of biotech subsidiaries with an eye to growing the pipeline in a play to create a new kind of pharma company.

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Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

Mark Mal­lon charts post-Iron­wood course by tak­ing CEO job at NeoGe­nomics; Glax­o­SmithK­line vet Feng Ren joins In­sil­i­co as CSO

Mark Mallon steps aside at Ironwood on March 12 after close to two years at the helm, and he already has a new change of scenery squared away. Beginning April 19, Mallon takes charge as CEO of cancer-focused genetic test maker NeoGenomics out of Fort Myers, FL while his predecessor, Douglas VanOort, is retiring after 12 years as NeoGenomics’ chairman and CEO.

It’s a fresh start for Mallon after what will amount to a tumultuous 23 months as Ironwood’s chief executive. Last year was marked by trial failures that spelled double trouble, leaving the Ironwood cupboard bare: first, a Linzess reformulation for irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea (IBS-D) in May, and then the drug IW-3718 for persistent acid reflux in September. After IW-3718’s discontinuation, Ironwood chopped its staff by 35%. On Feb. 8, Mallon announced his departure at Ironwood, with president Tom McCourt getting bumped up to interim CEO.

Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck takes a swing at the IL-2 puz­zle­box with a $1.85B play for buzzy Pan­dion and its au­toim­mune hope­fuls

When Roger Perlmutter bid farewell to Merck late last year, the drugmaker perhaps best known now for sales giant Keytruda signaled its intent to take a swing at early-stage novelty with the appointment of discovery head Dean Li. Now, Merck is signing a decent-sized check to bring an IL-2 moonshot into the fold.

Merck will shell out roughly $1.85 billion for Pandion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech hoping to gin up regulatory T cells (Tregs) to treat a range of autoimmune disorders, the drugmaker said Thursday.

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Steve Cutler, Icon CEO (Icon)

In the biggest CRO takeover in years, Icon doles out $12B for PRA Health Sci­ences to fo­cus on de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal work

Contract research M&A had a healthy run in recent years before recently petering out. But with the market ripe for a big buyout and the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizing the importance of decentralized trials, Wednesday saw a tectonic shift in the CRO world.

Icon, the Dublin-based CRO, will acquire PRA Health Sciences for $12 billion in a move that will shake up the highest rungs of a fragmented market. The merger would combine the 5th- and 6th-largest CROs by 2020 revenue, according to Icon, and the merger will set the newco up to be the second-largest global CRO behind only IQVIA.

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Tal Zaks, Moderna CMO (AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi, via still image from video)

CMO Tal Zaks bids Mod­er­na a sur­prise adieu as biotech projects $18.4B in rev­enue, plots post-Covid ex­pan­sion

How do you exit a company after six years in style? Developing one of the most lucrative and life-saving products in pharma history is probably not the worst way to go.

Tal Zaks, Moderna’s CMO since 2015, will leave the mRNA biotech in September, the biotech disclosed in their annual report this morning. The company has already retained the recruitment firm Russell Reynolds to find a replacement.

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Covid-19 roundup: Mer­ck­'s $356M sup­ply deal on hold as FDA asks for more da­ta; FDA ap­proves Pfiz­er/BioN­Tech vac­cine stor­age at stan­dard freez­er temps

Merck is pushing back plans to supply the US government with a Covid-19 drug after the FDA asked for more data to support an emergency use authorization.

The antibody, MK-7110, had looked promising in a Phase III study conducted by OncoImmune before Merck came along and bought the biotech for $425 million. At the interim analysis, investigators looked at data from 203 patients and concluded that a single dose of the drug cut the risk of death or respiratory failure by more than 50% among severe patients. And those taking the drug had a 60% higher chance of improvement in clinical status compared to placebo.

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CEO Fred Aslan (Artiva)

NK cell ther­a­py play­er Arti­va makes some more noise, pulling in $120M Se­ries B less than a month af­ter Mer­ck deal

Not even one month after Big Pharma took notice of Artiva when Merck signed a collaboration worth nearly $2 billion in milestones, the off-the-shelf NK cell biotech already has its next big fundraise.

Artiva returns from the venture well Friday with a $120 million Series B round, money they will use to get their first program into the clinic and to file INDs for another two candidates. The raise marks the latest development in a rapidly expanding footprint for Artiva, which, in addition to the Merck deal last month, has now raised almost $200 million since its Series A last June.