Friday, May 18, 2012

Financings of the Fortnight Ponders Neurodegenerative Death And Taxes

The big funding news this fortnight doesn’t come from public or private investors, it comes from taxpayers. As "The Pink Sheet" DAILY reported May 15, the Obama administration formally rolled out its national Alzheimer’s plan, which has been in the works for more than a year.

Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases were already slated to get $450 million in National Institutes of Health funding in 2012, with the same amount proposed by the White House for 2013, but the new plan adds extra money: $50 million right away this year and $80 million proposed for next year, with another $20 million for caregiver support, education, data collection and other services.

Intriguing, then, that in a field where clinical trial costs are often cited as a major barrier to an already-skittish industry getting more deeply involved, nearly half of the extra $50 million for 2012 is earmarked for clinical trials. It won't help struggling biotechs push promising treatments, mind you; $16 million is going toward a prevention trial using the Roche/Genentech-sponsored antibody crenezumab to test still-healthy members of extended families in and around Medellin, Colombia, who share a rare genetic mutation that almost assures them of early-onset Alzheimer’s. The study, which the sponsors consider to be a Phase II adaptive trial, will cost an estimated $100 million. A private research group, the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute of Phoenix, is in charge, and chose crenezumab as the agent last December because it has demonstrated a better safety profile so far in early Alzheimer’s trials conducted by Genentech.

In addition to the NIH’s $16 million, Banner is putting up $15 million. Genentech will pay the remaining costs, but it’s unclear who will pay if the cost runs beyond $100 million. (Genentech spokeswoman Robin Snyder declined to speculate on additional costs but said the company doesn’t expect funding to be an issue.)

However it plays out, the fact of mighty Roche getting subsidies for as much as one-third of a major trial is, at the least, a sign of the importance of making progress – any progress at all – in Alzheimer’s R&D. We’re not complaining; if $16 million of our national treasure brings about an Alzheimer’s breakthrough, or simply speeds the progress toward one, it’s money well spent and a pittance compared to the costly burden of the disease now and a generation from now.

But to be clear: Neither Banner nor NIH accrue any rights to crenezumab, which Genentech licensed from Swiss biotech AC Immune in 2006, so if the trial points toward crenezumab as a viable treatment, Genentech/Roche could be sitting on a gold mine. The trial is expected to run five years, with an interim analysis after two. At that point the investigators would evaluate continuation of the trial to support an application for approval, said Snyder. “We are hopeful that the trial will support an indication, the specifics of which are yet to be discussed with regulatory authorities,” she wrote in an email. “If it works we would like crenezumab to be as broadly available to patients who may be eligible.”

The Banner Institute plans at some point to test the same antibody in people at higher risk for the more common form of Alzheimer’s.

A side note: Steering millions of federal dollars toward potentially groundbreaking Alzheimer’s trials hasn’t yet provoked the same skepticism as the millions being steered toward other drug discovery and development efforts under the new translational center known as NCATS.

Funding crucial Alzheimer’s trials is of course a different proposition than, say, repurposing drugs that have sat on industry shelves or fallen out of use, one of the mandates of NCATS, which had a $575 million budget this year. But both efforts are dollars spent that, in a parallel universe, perhaps, might have gone toward basic biomedical research, a common refrain from critics. (Our START-UP colleagues, who profile a different source of funding for biotech innovation every month in the “Capital Matters” column, wrote about one of the NCATS programs, the Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases, or TRND, a few months ago. You can read it here.)
Our friends at Pink Sheet are all over the NCATS story, and we suggest you follow along. It will require a subscription, but to paraphrase the late Donna Summer, they work hard for the money. So hard for it, honey. Rest in peace, disco queen, and same to you, go-go king. No one loves to love you, baby, more than…

Arena Pharmaceuticals: Wasting little time, Arena announced May 16 it priced a secondary stock offering and grossed $60.5 million just six days after an FDA advisory committee voted 18-4 in favor of Arena’s weight-loss drug lorcaserin. Arena sold 11 million shares at $5.50 per share, although shares reached as high as $7.02 on May 11, the day of the committee vote. Shares closed May 16 at $5.67. The vote doesn’t guarantee approval of lorcaserin, but it’s a notable reversal. The panel voted down the drug in September 2010, largely due to data that showed an increase in tumors in rat studies. A reassessment of that data, plus new information on the tumors’ causes, reassured the panel this time around that the cancer risk is negligible. Obesity drugs need to meet only one of two criteria set out in FDA’s draft guidance on weight management products: they either must provide a 5% weight loss in 35% of patients on-treatment and twice as many patients on-treatment as on-placebo; or there must be at least a 5% difference between weight loss in the active-product and placebo groups. Lorcaserin met the former standard, but not the latter. (More details about the panel’s decision is here, courtesy of our Pink Sheet colleagues.) Lorcaserin’s PDUFA date is June 27, so Arena’s new cash reserves give it a boost for commercialization, although in a deal expanded just before the committee vote, Eisai owns commercial rights to the drug in the US, Mexico, Canada and Brazil. Underwriters Jeffries & Co. and Piper Jaffray & Co., with help from BMO Capital Markets, have the option to sell up to 1.65 million additional shares. Two other sponsors of obesity are vying for FDA approval. Qnexa from Vivus has a PDUFA date of July 17, and Orexigen Therapeutics, which agreed to conduct a cardiovascular outcomes trial, hopes to re-file Contrave for approval in 2014. -- Cathy Dombrowski and Alex Lash

OncoMed Pharmceuticals: One of the first cancer stem cell companies, OncoMed is now hoping to cash in on the cancer stem cell hype (which just happens to be the subject of a forthcoming feature in Start-Up magazine). After all, OncoMed, founded in 2004, is a relative graybeard of the field, with a couple of alliances under its belt and three programs in the clinic. Tiny Verastem notched a $63 million IPO in late January without anything yet in the clinic, and another company, Stemline Therapeutics, filed its IPO papers in April. OncoMed hasn’t set terms yet, but it won’t be a surprise if it aims sky-high. Venture backers have put at least $170 million into the company since its founding, most of it coming in a massive Series B in 2008. There are seven venture funds and one strategic investor with stakes of 5% or more in OncoMed, led by U.S. Venture Partners (17%), Latterell Venture Partners (12%), and GlaxoSmithKline (12%), which also owns options for worldwide rights to two OncoMed antibodies. GSK can exercise the options at either the end of Phase I or Phase II proof of concept trials. OncoMed owns exclusive rights to its lead compound, the antibody demcizumab, and is currently testing it in two Phase Ib trials, both in combination with chemotherapy agents.  -- A.L.

Egalet: In its second incarnation, Danish pain management firm Egalet Ltd. has raised $14.3 million in Series B financing. The firm restructured and recapitalized in 2010, shedding its cardiovascular program to focus on its abuse-resistant Egalet technology for the development of opioid and non-opioid pain medications.  The company is preparing to advance lead candidate EGP066, an extended-release form of morphine, into Phase III studies. The Egalet platform creates tablets that erode at a controlled rate to produce prolonged- or delayed-release delivery. It also prevents the drug ingredient from being easily extracted, which deters drug abusers from chewing, snorting, or injecting it. First-time investor CLS Capital joined returning shareholders Atlas Venture, Omega Funds, Sunstone Capital, and Index Ventures, which committed to a two-tranched €2 million ($2.6 million) Series A round in August 2010.  Prior to the recap, Egalet A/S had raised at least $60mm in venture financing. In December 2009, it out-licensed its CV compound, the beta blocker EGP042, to RedHill Biopharma. The firm has a second formulation technology, Parvulet, that creates a soft pudding-like substance that can be eaten with a spoon. Farther down its pipeline are extended-release versions of oxycodone, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone. -- Amanda Micklus

Dynavax Technologies: Like Arena, Dynavax is a veteran biotech hoping to soon celebrate its first product launch, with the hepatitis B vaccine Heplisav now before the FDA for review. Dynavax tapped the public markets, raising $74.4 million on May 9 before deductions and expenses. It sold 17.5 million shares at $4.25 apiece, adding more than 10% of its share count to the outstanding base. If that’s not enough dilution, underwriters have the option to sell another 2.6 million shares. What’s more, Dynavax also announced just before the share sale that longtime CEO Dino Dina will step aside for a more commercially experienced successor. He’ll remain CEO until the search is complete, and he’ll also keep his board seat, Dynavax said. Investors didn’t take kindly to the CEO news or the offering, which was priced 17% below the previous day’s close of $5.09. Shares have continued to decline, closing May 17 at $3.76. But Dynavax needs the cash, as it owns full rights to Heplisav, for now at least, and says it intends to launch it independently in the US. Historically, biotechs that keep worldwide or at least US rights to their first commercial products fare better in the long term, but a successful launch is no guarantee. Dendreon’s prostate cancer treatment Provenge (sipuleucel-T) and Human Genome Sciences’ breakthrough lupus drug Benlysta (belimumab), both hailed as welcome additions in under-served indications, have faltered badly out of the gate. That's led to new management for Dendreon and, for HGS, a hostile takeover bid from marketing partner GSK. -- A.L.

Image courtesy of flickr user brain_blogger. How appropriate.

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