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.

FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn at the White House (AP Images)

Un­der fire, FDA to is­sue stricter guid­ance for Covid-19 vac­cine EUA this week — re­port

The FDA has been insisting for months that a Covid-19 vaccine had to be at least 50% effective – a measure of transparency meant to shore public trust in the agency and in a vaccine that had been brought forward at record speed and record political pressure. But now, with concerns of a Trump-driven authorization arriving before the election, the agency may be raising the bar.

The FDA is set to release new guidance that would raise safety and efficacy requirements for a vaccine EUA above earlier guidance and above the criteria used for convalescent plasma or hydroxychloroquine, The Washington Post reported. Experts say this significantly lowers the odds of an approval before the election on November 3, which Trump has promised despite vocal concerns from public health officials.

Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House (Photo: AFP)

Trump’s HHS claims ab­solute au­thor­i­ty over the FDA, clear­ing path to a vac­cine EUA

The top career staff at the FDA has vowed not to let politics overrule science when looking at vaccine data this fall. But Alex Azar, who happens to be their boss’s boss, apparently won’t even give them a chance to stand in the way.

In a new memorandum issued Tuesday last week, the HHS chief stripped the FDA and other health agencies under his purview of their rule making ability, asserting all such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times first obtained and reported the details of the September 15 bulletin.

Samit Hirawat (Bristol Myers Squibb)

Af­ter bruis­ing re­jec­tion, blue­bird and Bris­tol My­ers Squibb land ide-cel pri­or­i­ty re­view. But will it mat­ter for the CVR?

With the clock all but up, the FDA accepted and handed priority review to Bristol Myers Squibb and bluebird bio’s BCMA CAR-T, keeping a narrow window open for Celgene investors to still cash in on the $9 CVR from the $63 billion Celgene merger.

The acceptance comes five months after the two companies weres slammed with a surprise refuse-to-file that threatened to foreclose the CVR entirely. Today’s acceptance sets the FDA decision date for March 27, 2021 – or precisely 4 days before the CVR deadline of March 31. Given the breakthrough designation and strong pivotal data — 81.5% response rate, 35.2% complete response rate — priority review was largely expected.

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Blueprint CEO Jeff Albers (file photo)

Blue­print plots re­turn to FDA with new Ay­vak­it da­ta in rare con­di­tion — and the an­a­lysts cheer

Over a decade after launch, Blueprint Medicines nabbed the first approval for their first drug earlier this year. Now, as they move forward with a Roche-partnered global launch, they’re touting data that could push them into more patients.

The Jeff Albers-led Cambridge biotech released their full pivotal data for Ayvakit in patients with advanced systemic mastocytosis. In one 53-person study, they showed that 76% of patients responded to the drug, 36% had complete responses and that on average their responses lasted for just over 3 years. A smaller, 32-patient study had a 75% response rate and most were still responding after 10.4 months, the last follow-up.

#ES­MO20: Push­ing in­to front­line, Mer­ck and Bris­tol My­ers duke it out with new slate of GI can­cer da­ta

Having worked in parallel for years to move their respective PD-1 inhibitors up to the first-line treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb finally have the data at ESMO for a showdown.

Comparing KEYNOTE-590 and CheckMate-649, of course, comes with the usual caveats. But a side-by-side look at the overall survival numbers also offer some perspective on a new frontier for the reigning checkpoint rivals, both of whom are claiming to have achieved a first.

Anthony Coyle (Repertoire)

Flag­ship's merged biotech Reper­toire nets ex-Pfiz­er CSO An­tho­ny Coyle as R&D chief

Flagship is building a big-name C-suite at its new, $220 million merged biotech.

Repertoire Immune Medicines, which already boasts former Bioverativ chief John Cox as its CEO, announced yesterday that Anthony Coyle, the former Pfizer CSO and the founding CEO of Pandion, will join as their head of R&D.

“As we progress clinical trials for our multi-clonal T cell candidates in immuno-oncology, Tony’s deep expertise in cellular immunology and novel therapeutic development will help us achieve our vision of creating a new class of transformative medicines for patients,” Cox said in a statement.

President Donald Trump (via AP Images)

Signs of an 'Oc­to­ber Vac­cine Sur­prise' alarm ca­reer sci­en­tists. HHS con­tin­ues to claim Azar “will de­fer com­plete­ly to the FDA"

President Donald Trump, who seems intent on announcing a Covid-19 vaccine before Election Day, could legally authorize a vaccine over the objections of experts, officials at the FDA and even vaccine manufacturers, who have pledged not to release any vaccine unless it’s proved safe and effective.

In podcasts, public forums, social media and medical journals, a growing number of prominent health leaders say they fear that Trump — who has repeatedly signaled his desire for the swift approval of a vaccine and his displeasure with perceived delays at the FDA — will take matters into his own hands, running roughshod over the usual regulatory process.

#ES­MO20: Bris­tol My­ers marks Op­di­vo's sec­ond ad­ju­vant win — eye­ing a stan­dard of care gap

Moving into earlier and earlier treatment lines, Bristol Myers Squibb is reporting that adjuvant treatment with Opdivo has doubled the time that esophageal or gastroesophageal junction cancer patients stay free of disease.

With the CheckMate-577 data at ESMO, CMO Samit Hirawat said, the company believes it can change the treatment paradigm.

While a quarter to 30% of patients typically achieve a complete response following chemoradiation therapy and surgery, the rest do not, said Ronan Kelly of Baylor University Medical Center. The recurrence rate is also high within the first year, Hirawat added.

Clay Siegall (Life Science Washington via YouTube)

#ES­MO20: Seat­tle Ge­net­ics eyes 4th ap­proval with new da­ta in a crowd­ed field

Does Seattle Genetics have another approval on its hands?

The last 12 months, not so great for the world, has been great for Seattle Genetics. The company landed two separate FDA approvals, signed a $4.5 billion deal with Merck and watched antibody-drug conjugates — the technology they spent years developing to broad industry skepticism — emerge suddenly as one of the most popular approaches in oncology. And on Monday at ESMO, the company and their partners at Genmab unveiled the data behind the ADC it hopes will provide its next major FDA approval.