One of the frequent thematic tropes found in the music of Canadian prog-rock trio Rush is the constancy of change, that change is constant, and constantly changing, etc. Anyone trying to follow hepatitis C drug development probably understands that message.
Just when it appeared that nucleoside polymerase inhibitors were the way to go in the effort to develop a paradigm-changing combination of all-oral, direct-acting antiviral drugs for the virus, a pair of recent setbacks in the “nuc” arena have made other classes of drugs and the companies developing them more relevant, and potentially more valuable.
Hence, the reported increased interest in Achillion Pharmaceuticals, which expects to produce early data for a proprietary combination of a protease inhibitor and an NS5A inhibitor during the first quarter of 2013. Once thought in danger of being left behind as the M&A mavens at big pharma circled Pharmasset, then Inhibitex, and continued to kick the tires on Idenix Pharmaceuticals, Achillion now is considered by many Wall Street analysts to be on the radar screen of HCV players such as Merck & Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche and possibly others.
Achillion raised $41.7 million in a registered direct offering just before Labor Day, placing 6.4 million new shares with QVT Financial LP at $6.57 per unit, its closing price on Aug. 31. That marked the New Haven, Conn.-based biotech’s third significant fund raise since August 2010, as it brought in $60.9 million through a follow-on public offering in June 2011, and $49.1 million under a PIPE (private investment in public equity) deal in August 2010.
But Wall Street widely expects that Achillion will have some big pharma R&D machinery behind its HCV efforts soon, maybe even before the Phase II combo data for protease inhibitor ACH-1625 (sovaprevir) and NS5A inhibitor ACH-3102 are unveiled. (The firm also will disclose Phase I proof-of-concept data for ‘3102 this fall.)
Dismissed as barely relevant in the combo race as recently as earlier this year, Achillion may get a second chance thanks to the disastrous safety issues encountered by Bristol’s expensive nuc prospect, BMS-986094. The pharma paid $2.5 billion to buy that drug’s developer, Inhibitex, only months before shutting development of the drug down entirely in mid-August due to cardiotoxicity that killed one patient and hospitalized eight others.
The news then got worse or better, depending on your perspective, when FDA placed Idenix’s nuc, IDX184, and second-generation compound, IDX19368, on clinical hold because of concerns about their similarity in chemical structure to the Bristol nuc. It’s important to note that the “nuc” class is by no means dead – Gilead Sciences is still viewed as the leader in the HCV combo race thanks to the eye-opening data its nuc, GS-7977, is producing. And Vertex Pharmaceuticals is bringing a nuc licensed last year from Alios BioPharma into the clinic, as well.
Achillion has an analyst day presentation slated for Sept. 27, and with the expectation for POC data with ‘3102 and drug-drug interaction data for the ‘1625/‘3102 combination expected this quarter, Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst Thomas Russo thinks a partnership prior to the combo trial would make sense. “While lack of visibility makes this timing impossible to predict, generally speaking we’d view [a] non-exclusive collaboration positively because it would add shots on goal, external validation, and perhaps regimens that would augment investor excitement and conviction,” he wrote in an Aug. 8 note.
He added that Bristol and Abbott Laboratories have been demonstrating in the lab that high sustained virologic response (SVR) rates can be attained by antiviral combos not including a nuc. “Achillion’s pipeline features PIs and NS5A inhibitors that look best-in-class, complementary, and reasonably likely to succeed in interferon-free combos – all under its roof and/or via external collaboration,” Russo said. “We believe big players will fight on for some period longer, with some looking to fill gaps in their HCV pipelines and others perhaps looking for a complete solution.”
Sovaprevir, in triple-combination testing with existing standards ribavirin and pegylated interferon, has demonstrated effective inhibition of viral replication without generating “meaningful resistance,” an unending concern in the protease inhibitor class, wrote Brean Murray Carret & Co. analyst Brian Skorney on Aug. 9. “Although not a clear home run … [this is] a characteristic we believe is unique to only handful of antivirals in development for hep C,” he added.
Now, on to our weekly roundup of:
Merck KGaA/Symphogen – Danish biotech Symphogen AS has licensed its lead oncology product, Sym004, a mixture combining two antibodies targeting the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) on tumor cells, to Merck KGaA for an upfront payment of €20 million ($25 million). Symphogen was evaluating Sym004 in two Phase I/II studies, which have shown initial signs of the drug’s clinical benefit and have been transferred into Merck’s control. The deal underlines the growing interest in combination therapies for cancer, as well as Merck’s desire to build on its marketed EGFR-targeted anticancer, Erbitux (cetuximab), which is its second largest-selling product, garnering sales of €855 million ($1.13 billion) in 2011. Merck receives exclusive development and commercialization rights for Sym004 worldwide, and now will fund all further development of the compound. In return, Symphogen receives the upfront and potentially could earn €225 million in clinical development and regulatory milestones, as well as €250 million in combined sales performance milestones and royalties on net worldwide sales, bringing the total potential value of the deal to €495 million. Merck is much in need of clinical-stage products that it can advance quickly following a string of late-stage product failures, which have prompted a management reorganization and the start of a cost-saving program including job losses at its R&D facilities in Switzerland, and across functions in Germany. – John Davis
Valeant/Medicis – In a move to become a leader in dermatology, Valeant Pharmaceuticals announced Sept. 3 that it has agreed to pay $44 per share, or $2.6 billion, for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Medicis Pharmaceutical – representing a 39% premium to Medicis’ closing price of $31.56 on Aug. 31, the last trading day before the deal was announced. The Medicis acquisition, which will be funded entirely with debt, adding to the company’s $7.6 billion debt (as of the end of 2011), will make Valeant the largest dermatology player in the U.S. and second only to Galderma SA in the rest of the world. While Valeant has interests in several specialty pharma areas including dentistry and branded generics, the largest part of the business belongs to dermatologics with a focus on acne, eczema, and topical antivirals. Medicis brings a handful of products that will be complementary to Valeant’s current portfolio including the oral acne product Solodyne (minocycline oral), which will fit in with the company’s topical acne offerings. The company also makes aesthetic injectables like Restylane, Perlane and Dysport – which fit in with Valeant’s collagen stimulator Sculptra. Valeant expects $225 million in synergies – an estimate the company considers conservative and does not take into account any revenue upside or further upside from anything that may come out of the Medicis pipeline. According to Wells Fargo analyst Michael Tong, the deal will nearly double Valeant’s dermatology business, which was expected to produce revenues of $958.7 million in 2012 (analysts estimated Medicis would bring in approximately $820 million in revenues in 2012). – Lisa LaMotta
Medivir/Novadex – Achillion is not the only player in the HCV space looking to take advantage of recent stumbles by Bristol and Idenix. Medivir AB, which is developing Phase III protease inhibitor simprevir (TMC435) in tandem with Johnson & Johnson unit Janssen Pharmaceuticals for hepatitis C, announced a deal with Novadex Pharmaceuticals Sept. 6 in which it acquired a package of preclinical HCV assets, including novel nucleoside polymerase inhibitors. A release said the deal will include an upfront payment and potential milestones, but did not disclose specific terms. Medivir said the deal will include intellectual property and prodrug technologies that will further strengthen its HCV platform and know-how. The prodrug technologies could be applied to both protease inhibitors and nucleoside analogues to enhance their overall pharmacokinetic profiles, the company added. TMC435 also is being tested in combination with Bristol’s NS5A inhibitor daclatasvir (BMS790052) under a collaboration between Janssen and Bristol that was extended in April. – Joseph Haas
ImaginAb/MacroGenics – Two privately held companies in the antibody development space agreed Sept. 5 to collaborate on a pair of imaging products that could support ongoing development of new therapies. Los Angeles-based imaging specialist ImaginAb said it would develop a clinical imaging product for inhibition of the CD3 T-cell receptor based on an anti-CD3 therapy belonging to MacroGenics of Rockville, Md. The companies did not specifically name teplizumab as the therapy, but that is MacroGenics’ most advanced anti-CD3 program.ImaginAb also will develop a companion imaging agent for an immune-regulating B7-H3 target; MacroGenics’ Phase I clinical candidate, MGA271, addresses B7-H3. ImaginAb’s agents typically are used by partners to select patients and monitor responses to clinical treatments. The two companies share at least one investor, the oncology-focused Nextech Venture of Zurich. MacroGenics has raised more than $125 million from a long roster of venture investors since it was founded in 2000; five-year-old ImaginAb announced its $12.5 million Series A round in March 2012, and already has forged partnerships with drug companies such as Astellas Pharma and Oxford BioMedica, as well as a variety of cancer research organizations. Last month, ImaginAb named Eleven Biotherapeutics CEO Abbie Celniker as chair of its board of directors. – Paul Bonanos
Pfizer/SFJ Pharmaceuticals – Pfizer and SFJ Pharmaceuticals announced a collaborative development agreement Sept. 7 to conduct a Phase III trial for dacomitinib (PF-00299804), a pan-human epidermal growth factor receptor (pan-HER) inhibitor in advanced lung cancer. To be conducted at multiple sites in Asia and Europe, the Phase III trial will test the agent in patients with locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer with activating mutations of epidermal growth factor receptor. SFJ will fund the trial and provide clinical development supervision as needed to prepare dacomitinib, an oral, once-daily, small molecule inhibitor of the HER-1, HER-2 and HER-4 tyrosine kinases, for regulatory filings as a first-line treatment in advanced NSCLC. If the compound obtains regulatory approval, SFJ will be in line to earn milestone and other earn-out payments. No other financial details were disclosed. This is the second collaboration between the world’s largest pharma and San Francisco-based SFJ, founded in 2009 a co-development partner for pharma and biotech. Earlier this year, the two partnered to run a Phase III trial in Asia of Inlyta (axitinib) for adjuvant treatment of patients at high risk of recurrent renal cell carcinoma following nephrectomy. – JAH
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