Friday, June 07, 2013

Deals Of The Week Tracks Obamacare

The pharmaceutical community, like much of the country remains divided about the Affordable Care Act and  its impact on healthcare and the industry, perhaps even more so than when the original law passed in 2010. The industry, of course, supported the initial legislation, and many people continue to believe it made the right decision. 

But as deadlines approach for the all-important next phase of the law, execution realities and uncertainty raise questions, many of which can’t be answered in the near term. Nonetheless, they have implications overall for the healthcare system and patients, and, more narrowly, for pharma commercial and business development strategy. This year, in particular, is important for the market access phase of the legislation, as the country prepares to get new health insurance exchanges running by the Jan. 1, 2014 deadline, and states decide whether and how to expand their Medicaid offerings to broader populations. As of Jan. 1, Americans must have individual insurance coverage or pay a penalty (modest at first); they can buy the coverage through insurance plans listed on health insurance exchanges which begin operations on that date. 

Overall, pharma industry support, officially, at least, seems high, even as executives worry whether their companies will ever make up for the tradeoffs they agreed to three years ago in the form of bigger rebates (for Medicaid and other government programs) and taxes through numbers of newly covered lives. They are concerned about less high-profile provisions of the act, such as its dramatic expansion of the 340b program to new categories of hospitals, and a provision that limits reimbursement companies can get for minor improvements to their product, as well as the federal and state governments’ ability to execute their plans on time. 

Many states are just now announcing which insurance companies are participating in the exchanges and those plans are identifying their basic options, but the industry in general does not yet have a good perception of what drug coverage will look like, how the new exchange plans or Medicaid expansion will be populated, or how the mandatory individual insurance provisions will be enforced. 

Because no one really has the answers, many in the industry expect companies to monitor the ACA’s progress closely but continue to operate status quo. They are not so much keeping their heads in the sand as monitoring cautiously,” says an executive at a firm that advises companies on market access issues. “From a tactical perspective, no one knows what will happen, so they are taking the path of least resistance. Top execs are asking me to come up with projections, and I don’t know them, so they are proceeding as though there is no effect.”

The uncertainty hasn’t stopped Wall Street from predicting winners and losers in the healthcare sector in general, or entrepreneurs form seizing opportunity in the midst of change. At the Jefferies investment bank conference on June 4, a panel of experts opined about investor beneficiaries, and all agreed that whatever else, managed care –perhaps by another name—will be the name of the game going forward. Past efforts to move populations into managed care failed, but what’s different now is the government support for such programs, as well as massive databases that able to monitor how the system is performing.

Meanwhile, the industry’s relentless search for innovation continues – if for no other reason than because without it, there’s not much of an industry – witness the struggles of specialty pharma companies such as Elan PLC, Endo Health Solutions, and Forest Laboratories, all laboring to move beyond the enormous success of an innovative drug but finding it hard to come up with a repeat act.--Wendy Diller

MorphoSys/GSK: MorphoSys has struck a development and commercialization deal with GlaxoSmithKline for its mid-stage rheumatoid arthritis antibody, MOR103, which targets the GM-CSF pathway that stimulates production of immune cells such as macrophages. The deal, announced June 3, gives MorphoSys near-term cash in the form of a €22.5 million ($29.5 million) upfront, plus development, regulatory and commercialization milestones that could add up to €425 million. GSK also will pay a double-digit royalty on all sales of the product. MOR103 has completed a Phase I study in healthy individuals, as well as a Phase Ib/IIa trial in 96 patients with mild to moderate rheumatoid arthritis. Patients in the drug arm of the study showed a significant effect compared to placebo at just four weeks. GSK will take over all development, but did not specify when it will begin Phase II studies. MOR103 has also been tested in patients with multiple sclerosis.
MorphoSys has been shifting gears for the last few months as it tries to move away from the partnership model that has made it profitable to concentrate more on its wholly-owned pipeline. MorphoSys has two drugs in its proprietary pipeline: MOR208, a Phase I asset which targets CD19 for B-cell malignancies, and MOR202, a HuCAL antibody against CD38 for multiple myeloma. – Lisa LaMotta

Pfizer/CytomX Therapeutics: After obtaining preclinical proof-of-concept last year for its approach to tumor-specific delivery of specially engineered antibodies, CytomX has struck its first alliance with a big pharma. Under an agreement announced June 6, the company will collaborate with Pfizer to discover and develop a variation on antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) for cancer. Pfizer will pay the South San Francisco, Calif.-based biotech $25 million in combined upfront cash and milestones pegged to research and preclinical achievements. In addition, privately held CytomX could earn up to $610 million in regulatory and sales milestones, as well as tiered royalties into double digits on sales of any product reaching market. Because of the selectivity of candidates generated via its Probody Platform, CytomX says it can target broadly expressed tissues that are difficult to reach with other therapeutic approaches because of worries about off-target toxicity. CytomX uses its technology to generate ADCs that it calls Probody Drug Conjugates (PDCs), specially engineered antibodies or other approaches to drug delivery for cancer, inflammation and other unmet medical needs. PDCs will be safer and differentiated from other ADCs, CEO Sean McCarthy said, because they are engineered to combine cytotoxic payloads with Probodies that are masked to become activated only in the tumor’s micro-environment. Pfizer and CytomX are not disclosing the indications or specific targets on which they will work together, nor any timelines for the work, other than that it is an exclusive, multi-target alliance focused on oncology. – Joseph Haas

Janssen Biotech/Second Genome: Janssen Biotech and Second Genome Inc. announced a landmark research alliance on May 5th in which the latter will apply its microbiome discovery platform to characterize the role of human bacterial populations in ulcerative colitis. The goal is to translate the knowledge into therapeutic programs. The deal marks big pharma’s first commercial collaboration in microbiome R&D and may stimulate further deals and investment in the space. Interest in the therapeutic potential of the microbiome has been building over the past three years with the founding of several venture-backed companies focused on microbiome biology. Second Genome gets an upfront payment and milestones, both undisclosed. The upfront does not include equity. Janssen will fund the collaborative research through its Johnson & Johnson Innovation Center and the immunology therapeutic area within Janssen R&D LLC. Second Genome has preclinical programs in inflammatory bowel disease and type 2 diabetes, each about a year and a half from IND. It also has several discovery programs. On the same day, the start-up announced a $6.5 million third tranche to its series A financing, bringing the total raised to $11.5 million.—Michael Goodman

The Medicines Co./ ProFibrix: The hospital marketer The Medicines Co. is expanding into the hemostasis market, and has negotiated an option deal with ProFibrix BV that could improve its position there. The company announced June 4 it has agreed to pay $10 million upfront for an option to acquire ProFibrix later this year after Phase III clinical trial results read out on the company’s lead biologic, Fibrocaps. The dry powder topical formulation of fibrinogen and thrombin is being developed to stop bleeding during surgery. If the results of the single Phase III trial testing Fibrocaps are positive, The Medicines Company would pay $90 million to acquire ProFibrix outright. It also would be on the hook to pay $140 million in regulatory and sales milestones. ProFibrix’s ongoing Phase III trial, FINISH-3, has completed enrollment of 719 surgical patients with mild to moderate surgical bleeding, and the results are expected in the third quarter. The Medicines Company already markets the recombinant thrombin Recothrom, to which it recently gained rights through an earlier option arrangement with Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. The Medicines Company plans to combine the 60-person hemostasis group it gained from Bristol with the ProFibrix team. Both are based in Seattle, although ProFibrix’s leadership and headquarters are in The Netherlands. Plans call for CEO Jan Öhrström to stay on with The Medicines Company and head the company’s efforts in the hemostasis market. – Jessica Merrill

Novavax/Isconova: Eager to add adjuvant technology to its clinical and preclinical recombinant vaccine candidates, Novavax is making a $29.2 million bid to buy Swedish firm Isconova. Spun out of the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Isconova produces saponin-based, immune-modulating adjuvants. In October 2012, Rockville, Md.-based Novavax, which has vaccines in clinical development for seasonal influenza, pandemic influenza, respiratory syncytial virus and rabies, reported successful Phase I data testing its pandemic flu vaccine boosted with a third-party saponin-based adjuvant. In a release, Novavax said based on those data plus Isconova’s own data, it believes the Swedish biotech’s technology can complement and strengthen its vaccine programs. Novavax announced a public offer June 4 under which it would issue 15.45 million new shares of common stock and swap 1.2388 shares of its stock for each Isconova share. The deal would represent a 26.7% premium over Isconova’s share price at the close of trading June 3 and would result in Novavax shareholders owning 91.1% of the new combined company. Isconova shareholders would control the remaining 8.9%. Novavax said if the deal goes through, it will offer Isconova management “positions subject to their commitment to the combined company,” and it does not plan to seek changes regarding the Swedish firm’s headcount, employment terms or business location.--JAH

Arno/Veridex: Cancer-focused Arno Therapeutics signed an agreement June 3 with Veridex, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, to develop a diagnostic test for seeking optimal patients for its oncology candidates. Based in Flemington, N.J., Arno is developing cancer therapeutics that target the PI3 kinase/Akt pathway, as well as HDAC inhibitors and camptothecins. The two firms will team up to use Veridex’s proprietary CELLSEARCH platform to develop a diagnostic to detect the presence of activated progesterone receptors as a biomarker of anti-progestin activity in circulating tumor cells, those that have detached from a solid tumor and are found in the bloodstream. Arno is developing onapristone, an oral, anti-progestin type 1 progestin receptor antagonist. Now in preclinical development, onapristone is slated to begin clinical study during the second half of 2013.--JAH

AstraZeneca/ Rigel: AstraZeneca pulled out of its three-year partnership with Rigel Pharmaceuticals on June 4 after the companies announced lackluster results of the Phase III program for rheumatoid arthritis drug fostamatinib, an oral spleen tyrosine kinase (SYK) inhibitor. The drug did not show the levels of efficacy that many other drugs in the category have in clinical trials, prompting AZ to pull the plug. Rigel intends to evaluate the data from the Phase III program, which AZ conducted, and make a decision by end of the summer regarding its next steps. Rigel executives believe that fostamatinib could still find a place in the crowded RA market, even if the indication is just for a small subset of patients. Rigel potentially will seek approval of the drug on its own, but said it will not commercialize the drug without a partner. 

The failed program is just the most recent in a string of failures for the British pharma, which has ended programs in cardiovascular and oncology as well. It has also faced a slew of setbacks with its diabetes program, partnered with Bristol.--LL

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