Friday, May 21, 2010

Guest Post: At ATS, a Storm of Questions for IPF Drug Developers

Michael Gilman is the CEO of Stromedix, a Cambridge, MA biotech developing novel drugs to treat fibrotic organ failure. You can follow him on Twitter @Michael_Gilman. Interested in guest blogging for In Vivo? Drop us a line here.

At around eight on Sunday morning, just as the first sessions of the American Thoracic Society meeting got underway at the labyrinthine convention center in New Orleans, the skies opened up and unleashed ropes of rain. Thunder rumbled through the lecture halls, strobes of lightning lit the corridors. Power was lost, briefly snuffing out lights and laptops and stranding attendees on towering escalators. And it went on like that for two full hours — man, this place has some serious weather.

It was hard to miss the metaphor.

This year’s ATS was to be the moment in the sun for clinicians, scientists and drug developers working on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a staggering, deadly disease for which there is no approved therapy outside of Japan. Perched prominently on the calendar just two weeks prior to opening day was the PDUFA date for InterMune’s experimental IPF drug, pirfenidone.

The relatively tiny IPF crowd is usually swamped at ATS by the hordes of folks working on asthma and COPD, but this year several significant IPF sessions were on the program. A pirfenidone approval, the first for the condition in the US, would have been a jolt of electricity to the IPF community gathered in New Orleans.

Alas, it was not to be. The FDA did not approve the drug and IPF investigators reeled. I don’t have an especially informed opinion on pirfenidone. Above all, I’m disappointed for patients, who are desperate for treatment options. But, given the bafflingly inconsistent clinical data and confused deliberations of the FDA advisory panel, approval was by no means a slam dunk.

The FDA’s action left meeting participants with a long and rather painful list of questions. What targets do we go after next? What are the right endpoints? What patients do we enroll? Do we even understand the real natural history of the disease? What does the FDA want? Will anything ever work? It also sparked remarkably strong emotions among pulmonologists, many of whom are absolutely convinced the drug will help their patients and others equally persuaded it doesn’t work.

But Monday morning in New Orleans dawned bright and sunny. And the first major IPF session of the conference packed the vast auditorium to fire-code-violation levels. The centerpiece of the session was a couple of densely-packed reports from an expert panel that had deliberated for three years on formal guidelines for diagnosing the disease and treating it.

Conclusion on the latter point: No currently available treatments were recommended, including pirfenidone. Clearly, however, the troops were undaunted. You could sense people picking themselves up, dusting themselves off and getting psyched to wade back into battle. They want to beat this disease.

Which leads me to ask the following question.

Why do we do this? We are, generally speaking, intelligent folk. We’re rational and data-driven. Yet, inexplicably, we continue to pile into an enterprise in which the odds are ridiculously stacked against us. Are we nuts? Masochistic? In denial? Or just relentlessly optimistic? Convinced that our next idea is going to be better than our last? What is it that fuels our passion to develop new medicines for patients when it so often feels like a fool’s errand?

I don’t have an answer, but whatever it is, it was on display in New Orleans this week. And it’s inspiring. --Michael Gilman

image from flickr user ray devlin used under a creative commons license

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