Monday, September 29, 2008

Waiting on Prasugrel: No News is Good News

Another NDA, another missed deadline.

This time around, it’s a product upon which Eli Lilly has hung much of its future, the anti-clotting drug prasugrel (Effient).

Lilly has already been on a rollercoaster ride on Wall Street over prasugrel once the risks associated with the drug surfaced (32% increased chance of bleeding). And time is not on Lilly’s side: the company is racing to establish the drug on the market before 2011, when Plavix generics will complicate the anti-clotting landscape.

Prasugrel has also been closely watched as another sign of how FDA will use its new risk management authorities under the FDA Amendments Act. The billion-dollar questions: would FDA agree that the bleeding risk associated with prasugrel could be appropriately managed by a REMS, or is more needed for approval? And is there any chance for a relatively clean label?

All that makes prasugrel the closest-watched drug approval this year. Indeed, between the September 26 prasugrel user fee deadline and the Wall Street bailout agreement, there were more than a few investors who were constantly refreshing their computer screens as Friday wore on.

While a bailout deal may be at hand, we’ll have to wait a little longer to find out about the fate of prasugrel. For now, Lilly’s not talking, except to say—in a press release that crossed the wires at 5 pm on Friday—that FDA would miss the deadline, that the review is “very far along,” and that Lilly “remains optimistic” that an approval is imminent.

Wall Street’s immediate reaction was not positive—the announcement drove Lilly shares down 3.9% to $45.01 in after-hours trading, and shares opened lower this morning. Les Funtleyder at Miller Tabak expressed his frustration in a research note: “This has become a bit of an unsettling trend at the FDA. The decision tree used to be pass or fail, now there is a third column, the ‘I don't know.’” (Hat tip to CNBC).

We think that pessimism is misplaced.

We told you three months ago why we think FDA will approve prasugrel, and that reasoning hasn’t changed. Indeed, the fact that the agency missed the user fee deadline bodes even better for the drug’s prospects, because it indicates—barring any last-minute surprises—that an approval is close at hand.

Here’s why: Since FDA’s drug review divisions were given the green light to start missing deadlines, most of the applications delayed by workload issues were eventually approved within weeks, based on a recent analysis in The RPM Report. (If you don’t already subscribe, you can sign up for a 30-day trial to access the story.)

For one recent example, look no further than Amgen’s Nplate, which cleared FDA a little over two months after the user fee deadline. GlaxoSmithKline’s Entereg was approved 10 days late. UCB Pharma’s Cimzia was three weeks late. And there are other examples of how small allowances for heavier workloads at FDA have led to product approvals.

There are many reasons for a missed deadline, and some (like finding enough members to staff an advisory committee) have led to months-long delays for new products. But that’s doesn’t appear to be the case with prasugrel: “This is a very large, complex submission, and it should not be surprising that delays occur,” Lilly said.

Given the much-ballyhooed size of that NDA package, perhaps it’s not surprising that it would take FDA extra (and then some more) time to read through it. The absence of an advisory committee meeting for prasugrel is also a positive sign, given that drugs without one have a greater chance for a first cycle reviews.

Sanford Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson agrees that no news is good news: “Our best guess at this point is that while the Effient review is not yet complete, a final decision by FDA is not likely to require that LLY/Daiichi-Sankyo generate new clinical data; the issue may be a smaller one like finessing the label, the risk management plan, etc.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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