Friday, February 22, 2013

Deals Of The Week Wonders What Merck's Latest Biosimilars Move Really Means

Ever since Merck jumped into the biosimilar field in 2008 with a ferocious go get ’em attitude more fitting of an NFL tackle than a big pharma, we’ve been following their progress – and then lack of progress – closely. Back when most pharmaceutical manufacturers were still griping about defending their biologic brands, Merck’s early aggressive ambitions made an interesting case study in how a big pharma might strike offensively by positioning itself as a contender in the biosimilar space.

So the company’s announcement Feb. 20 that it has partnered with Korea’s Samsung Bioepsis to develop multiple undisclosed biosimilar candidates, while delivered quietly in a concise statement, struck us as a noteworthy change in strategy.

You didn’t have to read tea leaves to see that Merck’s original strategy wasn’t working out. In 2008, Merck established a business unit devoted to the field and pledged to invest $1.5 billion and launch six or more biosimilars between 2012 and 2017. But last year, as we reported here, the company closed Merck BioVentures, the unit it created devoted to biosimilars, and folded the research into biologics and vaccines at Merck Research Labs. And Mike Kamarck, the charismatic proponent of biosimilars who led Merck’s charge into the field, left the company.

Now, we can’t help but wonder what the latest announcement means for Merck’s biosimilar strategy.
Is it a reaffirmation of the company’s commitment to biosimilars, albeit through a more modest path, or is Merck effectively washing its hands of biosimilars while still holding out for some hope of an eventual commercial reward? Samsung will be responsible for preclinical and clinical development, manufacturing, clinical trials and registration of any candidates, while Merck will commercialize the products. It’s not clear how much Merck is putting behind the effort either, as the financials of the deal were not disclosed; Merck is paying Samsung an upfront and has agreed to milestones.

Merck declined to offer further insight on the move, but said the deal with Samsung will complement its internal effort. The only biosimilar Merck has in its internal pipeline that has been publicly disclosed, however, is a copy of Roche/Biogen Idec’s Rituxan, the one drug Samsung Bioepsis won’t be developing because the company – formed in 2011 out of joint venture between Samsung Biologics and Biogen – won’t make any biosimilar versions of Biogen products.

Given Merck’s inability to get new drugs to market of late, the decision to take a contract research approach to biosimilars may be the best way for Merck to hold onto the potential commercial upside of biosimilars without the investment internal development requires. Merck ran into the field at high speed, and we admired their optimism, but given the evolving regulatory and commercial dynamics, a cautious path may be the wiser one.

And let’s not forget why the decision to jump into biosimilars was easier for Merck to make than for some other big pharmas: Merck never had a history in biologics and hasn’t traditionally had treasured blockbuster biologic brands to protect. It gained some knowledge of the field and rights to Remicade in certain territories outside the U.S. through its mega-merger with Schering-Plough. But it’s hard to envision Merck’s inexperience as a competitive advantage in a notoriously difficult field like biologics. Development and manufacturing is just as hard for biosimilars, even when manufacturers have a reference molecule to use as a road map.

Three years after the U.S. government laid a regulatory framework for biosimilars, no applications have yet been filed through the new pathway with FDA. Today, while Merck has adopted a more subtle tone when it comes to biosimilars, Amgen – a biologics expert – is crowing about its grand ambitions for the field.

Roche/Chiasma: Roche and privately held Chiasma Inc inked a deal Feb. 18 to develop and commercialize the Israel-based biotech’s proprietary pill Octreolin, initially for acromegaly and, afterwards, for neuroendocrine tumors (NET). Their pact brings a new Phase III drug to Roche’s pipeline, targeting both an oncology (NET) and non-oncology indication (acromegaly). It gives Roche worldwide exclusive license to Octreolin, and Chiasma receives upfront payments of $65 million and future milestone payouts of up to $530 million, along with tiered, double-digit royalties on Octreolin net sales. Roche said it decided to partner with Chiasma and commercialize Octreolin in part because of the convenience and improved quality of life an oral therapy might offer patients. The pill may consequently command a higher price to injectables and there appears to be little oral competition on the horizon near-term. Delivering octreotide orally twice daily would be a major advantage for patients with acromegaly as they would avoid the painful monthly injections involved in current treatment options such as Novartis' Sandostatin LAR. - Sten Stovall

Chiesi/Cornerstone: Cornerstone Therapeutics’ majority shareholder is looking to buy out the company. North Carolina-based Cornerstone announced Feb. 20 that it received a letter from its majority shareholder – Italy’s Chiesi Farmaceutici – offering to buy the remaining outstanding shares of the company. Chiesi offered $6.40 to $6.70 per share for the 40% of the company it doesn’t already own – valuing the specialty pharma at $177 million. In a letter from Chiesi to the board of directors of Cornerstone, Chiesi’s CEO Ugo Di Francesco said the company “has adequate liquidity available and excellent relationships with our banks to effect an all cash bid.” Di Francesco added that Chiesi has “conducted an extensive review of Cornerstone based on publicly available information, our own deep experience in the pharmaceutical industry and consultations with our outside advisors.” The Italian drug maker plans “to move promptly” in regard to the bid “and is committed to working vigorously and expeditiously with [Cornerstone] to complete a transaction.” Cornerstone said in a statement that “no decisions have been made by the board of directors with respect to Chiesi’s proposal.” The two companies paired up in May 2009 when Chiesi granted Cornerstone an exclusive U.S. license to sell its porcine-derived lung surfactant Curosurf (poractant alfa) for a 10-year period. In return, Chiesi took an equity stake in the company that now accounts for a 60% share. - Lisa LaMotta

Janssen/Pharmacyclics/Abbott: Partners Janssen Biotech and Pharmacyclics will work with Abbott to develop a molecular diagnostic test to identify patients with a genetic sub-type of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Abbott will develop the test using its proprietary FISH (fluorescence in situ hybridization) technology; the test will identify hard-to-treat CLL patients who have a deletion within chromosome 17p (del17p). These patients are likely to respond to ibrutinib, a small molecule inhibitor of Bruton tyrosine kinase (BTK). At the American Society of Hematology conference in December, the partners presented positive Phase Ib/II data in a subset of relapsed/refractory CLL patients with the 17p deletion. The partners have an ongoing Phase II trial for ibrutinib in CLL patients with the 17p deletion. The company expects enrollment in this trial will take about 12 months to complete. On Feb. 12, FDA granted breakthrough designation to ibrutinib to treat two B-cell malignancies: relapsed or refractory mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) and Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia (WM). This could mean an approval for ibrutinib as soon as early next year. Pharmacyclics’ share price has been on a white-hot streak since last May, climbing more than 200%. News of the breakthrough designation bumped shares up about 20%. Details of the Abbott partnership remain undisclosed. - Stacy Lawrence

Eisai/Valeant: Valeant Pharmaceuticals announced Feb. 21 that it has acquired U.S. rights from Eisai Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Japan's Eisai Co. Ltd., for cutaneous T-cell lymphoma treatment Targretin (bexarotene). Eisai received $65 million up front and is eligible for additional payments tied to undisclosed milestones. In March 2011, Eisai granted exclusive rights to Minophagen Pharmaceutical to develop and commercialize Targretin in Japan, expanding that agreement in April 2012 to cover Asia, Oceania, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and other regions. And in a deal similar to the Valeant agreement, in December 2012, Eisai sold U.S. commercial rights to Gliadel Wafer (carmustine) for glioblastoma to Arbor Pharmaceuticals. Gliadel and Targretin are aging products. However, the company’s cancer pipeline – oncology is 70% of Eisai’s revenues – has shown recent signs of stumbling. Farletuzumab, which entered Eisai’s pipeline with its 2007 acquisition of Morphotek, demonstrated disappointing results last January in platinum-sensitive ovarian cancer, not meeting the primary PFS endpoint in its first Phase III attempt. And Halaven (eribulin), approved in the U.S. in 2010 for metastatic breast cancer, missed its primary endpoints last year in a head-to-head Phase III superiority study against Xeloda (capecitabine). Much of the excitement around eribulin at the time of its approval was the likelihood of extending its label, which is now drawn into question. Eisai said the deal with Valeant would maximize the product’s value in the U.S. It went on to add that the agreement would enable Eisai to “strategically reallocate resources to other mid-to-long-term business growth areas” but it didn’t elaborate. As for Valeant, this deal continues its strategy of acquiring what it considers to be undermanaged commercial assets. - Mike Goodman

UCB/ConfometRx: Belgium’s mid-sized pharma company, UCB, is to link up with the Santa Clara, Calif.-based G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) structural biology firm, ConfometRx, to discover new drugs in UCB’s sweet spot, the neurosciences. As often stated, GPCRs are the target for 25%-30% of marketed products, but GPCR research is hampered by the difficulty in extracting active receptors from cell membranes for use in research and drug screens. ConfometRx is developing crystallization techniques for GPCRs to make the screening process easier for GPCR-targeted drugs and antibodies. The two-year, multi-target research collaboration between UCB and ConfometRx is intended to gain insights into modulating GPCR targets in order to design differentiated drugs, the companies said Feb. 21. ConfometRx will receive an upfront payment, research funding and milestones, but further details of the agreement were not disclosed. UCB is building “super-networks” of innovation, which include tie-ups with Harvard University and the University of Oxford’s medical sciences division over the past three years. ConfometRx already is collaborating on various GPCR-related research projects with Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novo Nordisk and Lundbeck, while other companies active in providing research insights in the GPCR space include Heptares Therapeutics of the U.K., France’s Domain Therapeutics and San Diego-based Receptos. - John Davis

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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