Friday, April 29, 2011

Deals Of The Week: CATT Fight

Well, the cat (er catt) is out of the bag – and, n,o we aren’t talking about Kate Middleton’s decision to wear a long-sleeved ivory confection with flower appliqué details when she tied the Windsor knot.

While fashionistas, pundits, and the British nation had their eyes trained on Westminister Abbey, the biopharma industry was focused on the release of data comparing the utility of the high priced Lucentis versus the much cheaper Avastin to treat wet age-related macular degeneration. And as everyone now knows, the data from the 1200-patients trial sponsored by NIH suggest that in this particular setting, there seems to be little reason—based on overall outcomes—to spend thousands of dollars on Lucentis when Avastin works just as well for a fraction of a cost.

Dr. Phillip Rosenfeld, an ophthalmologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, was particularly blunt in his assessment in a NEJM editorial that accompanied the data’s publication: "Healthcare providers and payers worldwide will now have to justify the cost of using ranibizumab [Lucentis]," he said.

That’s not to say Genentech and Novartis aren’t channeling their inner Churchill (or perhaps, more appropriately, their inner John Paul Jones). Already the companies are highlighting potential unanswered safety questions, including discrepancies in dosing and a slight increase in the incidence of non-specific serious adverse events, mostly hospitalizations. Expect the drug companies to play up whether the controlled conditions of the NIH trial can adequately be replicated in a real world setting too.

Given we are talking about people’s sight, those questions may provide a persuasive argument for docs and patients wary of not using the formulation that has FDA’s stamp of approval. Provided payers play along, of course.

And that's why Medicare’s decision is so critical. Avastin vs. Lucentis has become the poster child for the comparative effectiveness debate; thus, you can bet industry will be watching closely to see whether or not CMS initiates a coverage review that would limit Lucentis’ use. Such a decision would certainly give private payers more license to limit the medicine as a first-line treatment option.

The ripples of CATT will almost certainly be felt outside the walls of Novartis and Roche/Genentech as well. Ophthalmology – particular treating diseases that blind—has become an area of interest for big pharma because of the unmet medical need for new therapies. Because back of the eye diseases are treated by a highly trained and technically savvy group of specialists, the sector has long been a favorite of the venture community as well.

What does this mean for new AMD drugs coming down the pike like the complement inhibitors developed by Optherion or the anti-PDGF inhibitor developed by Opthotech? Given such medicines work by a different mechanism of action than the anti-VEGF inihibitors Lucentis and Avastin, their value proposition is still a little bit easier to explain. But whether potential partners will bite without superiority data is another question.

Certainly the CATT data seem to make life much tougher for Bayer and Regeneron, who now face some thorny questions about their VEGF Trap-Eye medicine, aflibercept. Phase III data released last fall showed the drug to be non-inferior to Lucentis, with fewer doses required. But with data from CATT suggesting drugs like Lucentis and Avastin can be given at less frequent intervals, a dosing advantage alone seems unlikely to be enough to ensure Regeneron and Bayer coverage and commercial uptake of their medicine – especially when data showing a much cheaper alternative can do the job.

Whether you think the CATT results are the cat’s meow or worth nothing more than a cat call, it’s time for another edition of deals of the week…

Johnson & Johnson/Synthes: The deal garnering the lion’s share of the PR this week is Johnson & Johnson’s $21.3 billion tie-up of orthopedic trauma device maker Synthes, announced April 27. Under the terms of the deal, J&J will pay $181.75 per share for Synthes in cash and stock, an 8.5% premium over Synthes’ stock price close on April 26 and a 21.7% premium over its close on April 14, when rumors about a possible tie-up first surfaced. It’s the largest deal in J&J’s history, coming half a decade after the diversified giant passed on upping its $25 billion bid for Guidant. Strategically the Synthes buy-out makes a lot of sense: it gives J&J the pole position in orthopedics boosting sector revenues from around $5.6 billion to more than $9 billion, and deepens its expertise in trauma fixation devices, an arena less prone to payer oversight and the vagaries of a slowing economy. (Fixing the damage arising from a major accident ain’t exactly elective.) At the time of the Guidant bidding war, analysts noted J&J’s interest in that company and the size of the deal said a lot about the health care company’s view on the relative merits of investing in med-tech versus pharma. Given the Synthes acquisition, the question of J&J’s dedication to Rx is sure to resurface, though the early approval of Zytiga may help the balance.

One interesting wrinkle is whether this big orthopedic deal could presage additional dealmaking in CV, since within J&J there’s historically been a school of thought linking opportunities in these two markets. As rumors about the possible J&J/Synthes tie-up coalesced, speculation ran the gamut. Thanks to the precipitous drop in market share of its drug-eluting stent biz, some predicted J&J would exit CV altogether, selling off its Cordis business; others said 'no,way,' opining this will spur J&J to re-up in CV, perhaps via acquiring percutaneous valve-leader Edwards Life Sciences.

Because J&J is paying for Synthes mostly in stock -- just 35% of the payment is cash -- the health care firm has plenty of ammunition for additional deal making. Given J&J's hefty balance sheet, its use of stock to ink the deal took some by surprise since it creates additional unwelcome earnings pressure. Even though the deal bolsters the struggling DePuy subsidiary, which like the consumer division, has seen major setbacks due to recalls, some claim J&J is simply putting a Band Aid (pun definitely intended) on its problems. Critics argue the company’s manufacturing problems are significant and that integrating Synthes will detract from the hard work required to fix a broken system. —The EBI Device team

Kadmon/Nano Terra: Sam Waksal’s Kadmon is at it again. After its deal-making bonanza last fall – recall the firm acquired Three Rivers and set up a strategic partnership with Valeant—Kadmon is teaming up with privately-held Nano Terra, a nanotech accelerator developing technologies with applications from biopharma to more industrial settings. Terms of the tie up weren’t disclosed but they do provide Kadmon with an exclusive license to three novel, clinical stage assets and access to Nano Terra’s proprietary Pharcomer Technology drug discovery platform. (FYI, the product candidates and the Pharcomer technology were originally developed by another private biotech, Surface Logix, and only recently acquired by Nano Terra, though no formal announcement about that deal appears to have been made.) Perhaps the most interesting asset for Kadmon is Slx-2119, a selective Rho-associated coiled-coiled kinase 2 (ROCK2) inhibitor that impacts cell shape and cell migration and may play a role in diseases as diverse as diabetes, cancer, and spinal cord injury. As part of the recent alliance, the assets and technology will be transferred to a new joint venture owned by Kadmon and Nano Terra called NT Life Sciences.—EFL

Sequella/Maxwell Biotech Venture Fund: Anti-infectives developer Sequella of Bethesda, Md., signed an unusual deal that gives Maxwell, a venture fund that specializes in Russian investments, rights to tuberculosis treatment SQ109 in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, which includes Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Maxwell is taking an undisclosed equity stake in Sequella, but the parties do not consider the transaction a round of funding. Sequella could receive up to $50 million from Maxwell, the first tranche being an upfront payment and near-term milestones that the companies declined to disclose. Run by former Pfizer discovery executive and incubator chief Alex Polinsky, Maxwell has responsibility for development and approval of SQ109 in its licensed areas. Sequella has completed three Phase 1 studies of SQ109 in the U.S. and is currently running Phase 2 efficacy studies in TB patients in Africa. It is also testing the compound as a treatment for Helicobacter pylori infections and fungal infections. Sequella officials told the IN VIVO Blog that the company has not raised traditional rounds of venture capital, instead leaning on individual investors and hedge funds to supplement government grants. -- Alex Lash

Eli Lilly/Medtronic: While drug companies routinely team up with device makers to find better ways to deliver drugs, the April 26 deal between Eli Lilly and Medtronic, to research and develop a new treatment for Parkinson's disease is notable for two reasons. For starters, the collaboration involves two very early stage technologies. But the alliance also facilitates Lilly's move into a new area of CNS that heretofore hasn’t been a primary focus. If all goes according to plan, the alliance will result in a combination of Lilly's modified form of glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) and Medtronic's implantable drug infusion system. Because the large protein growth factor can't get past the blood brain barrier, and, on its own, isn't targeted, the Medtronic device would deliver it directly to the dopamine-producing neurons that degenerate as Parkinson’s disease advances. The companies aren't disclosing much about the terms of their alliance, except to note that it is a 50-50 split in both costs and revenues and spans clinical development, regulatory and ultimately commercial stages. The aim is to produce a combination product that can be submitted jointly for regulatory approval. The partners don't have a fixed time line for getting their therapy through development, but expect to move it into the clinical within five years, said Ros Smith, a senior research director of regenerative biology at Lilly.While the modified GDNF is most advanced, Lilly also has several compounds in pre-clinical development for Parkinson's disease. Medtronic, for its part, doesn't currently sell a device that delivers drugs directly to the brain, although it markets a deep brain neurostimulation technology for treating Parkinson's disease and sells implantable pumps and catheters for delivery to the spinal cord.--Wendy Diller

Image courtesy of flickrer privatenobby used with permission through a creative commons license.

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