Haystack 2010 Year-In-Review

This Friday, we’re looking back at 2010′s big news in pharma and biotech, both the good and the bad. Check out our picks and be sure to weigh in on what you think we missed.

1. Provenge Approved

In April, Dendreon’s Provenge became the first approved cancer immunotherapy. Dendreon CEO Mitch Gold called it “the dawn of an entirely new era in medicine.” And while prostate cancer patients are excited for a new treatment option, the approval is perhaps most exciting for its potential to reignite interest in cancer immunotherapy research. There’s a lot of room for improving the approach—Provenge is, after all, expensive and highly individualized. Now that immunotherapy have been proven to work, there’s hope that the lessons learned in both its discovery and clinical development will aid scientists in inventing even better cancer vaccines.

2. Obesity Field Slims

The obesity drug race played out in dramatic fashion in 2010, with three biotech companies-Vivus, Arena, and Orexigen, each making their case for its weight-loss medication before FDA. As of this writing, Orexigen’s drug Contrave seems to be on the surest footing to approval, but longtime obesity-drug watchers know that caution seems to rule the day at FDA, so nothing is a sure bet.

Orexigen’s Contrave and Vivus’s Qnexa are both combinations of already-approved drugs, whereas Arena’s Lorqess is a completely new molecule. When C&EN covered the obesity race in 2009, it seemed that Lorqess (then going by the non-brand-name lorcaserin) had the cleanest safety profile, but Qnexa was best at helping patients lose weight.

But FDA’s panels didn’t always play out the way folks expected. There were safety surprises- notably the worries about tumors that cropped up in rats on high doses of Lorqess, and the extensive questioning about birth defect risks from one of the ingredients in Vivus’ Qnexa. The fact that FDA’s panel voted favorably for Orexigen’s Contrave, a drug that’s thought to have some cardiovascular risks, generated discussion because FDA pulled Abbott’s Meridia, a diet drug with cardiovascular risks, from the market in October.

The dust still hasn’t fully settled. Arena and Vivus received Complete Response Letters from FDA for Lorqess and Qnexa. Vivus has submitted additional documentation and a followup FDA meeting on Qnexa is happening in January. Also to come in January is the agency’s formal decision on Contrave. And if you’re interested in learning about the next wave of obesity drugs coming up in clinical trials, read this story in Nature News.

3. Sanofi & Genzyme: The Neverending Story

Speaking of drama, Sanofi’s pursuit of Genzyme has been in the headlines for months now, and promises to stretch well into 2011. The story goes something like this: Genzyme had a tumultuous year, as it struggled to correct the manufacturing issues that created product shortages and eventually led to a consent decree with FDA. In walked Sanofi, who offered—in a friendly way—to buy the company for $18.5 billion. Genzyme refused to consider what it viewed as a lowball offer. Weeks passed, they remained far apart on price with no signs of anyone budging, until Sanofi finally went hostile. Genzyme suggested it would be open to an option-based deal, which would provide more money later on if its multiple sclerosis drug candidate alemtuzumab reached certain milestones. Sanofi stuck to its $18.5 billion guns and is now trying to extend the time period to convince shareholders to consider its offer.

4. Final Stretch in HCV Race

This year, the industry finally got a peek at late-stage data for what are likely be the first drugs approved for Hepatitis C in more than two decades. Based on Phase III data, analysts think Vertex’s telaprevir will have an edge over Merck’s boceprevir once the drugs hit the market. Meanwhile, the next generation of HCV drugs had a bumpier year, with several setbacks in the clinic. Still, the flood of development in HCV has everyone hoping that eventually people with HCV can take a cocktail of pills, rather than the current harsh combination of interferon and ribavirin.

5. Pharma Covets Rare Diseases

Historically, research in rare diseases has been relegated to the labs of small biotechs and universities. But in 2010, big pharma firms suddenly noticed that if taken in aggregate, a pretty sizable chunk of the public—on the order of 6%–suffer from rare diseases. They also noticed that when there’s a clear genetic culprit, drug discovery is a bit more straightforward. Further, rare disease can sometimes be a gateway to approval in larger indications, making them all the more appealing. With that, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline both launched rare diseases units and made a series of acquisitions and licensing deals (Pfizer/FoldRxGSK/AmicusGSK/Isis, etc) to accelerate their move into the space. Meanwhile, Sanofi is trying to jump in with both feet through its proposed acquisition of Genzyme.

6. MS Pill Approved

Novartis gained approval in September for Gilenya, the first treatment for multiple sclerosis that is a pill rather than an injection. In even better news for people with MS, there more pills are rounding the corner towards FDA approval: Sanofi’s teriflunomide, Teva’s laquinimod, and Biogen’s BG-12. All of these drugs come with safety caveats, but the idea of new treatment options after years depending on interferons has gotten everyone in the MS field pretty excited.

7. Antibody-Drug Conjugates Prove Their Mettle

The concept of linking a powerful chemo drug to a targeted antibody, thereby creating something of a heat-seeking missile to blast tumor cells, isn’t new. But antibody-drug conjugate technology has finally matured to a point where it seems to be, well, working. Seattle Genetics presented very positive results from mid-stage studies of SGN-35 in two kinds of lymphoma. And ImmunoGen provided clear data showing its drug T-DM1 could significantly minimize side effects while taking down breast cancer.

8. Pharma Forges Further into Academia

With nearly every pharma firm paring back internal research, the focus on external partnerships has never been greater. Broad deals with universities are becoming more common, and Pfizer has arguably gone the furthest to evolve the model for working with academic partners. In May, Pfizer announced a pact with Washington University under which the academic scientists will look for new uses for Pfizer drug candidates. As part of the deal, they gain unprecedented access to detailed information on Pfizer’s compound library. And last month, Pfizer unveiled the Center of Therapeutic Innovation, a network of academic partnerships intended to bridge the “valley of death,” between early discovery work and clinical trials. The first partner is University of California, San Francisco, which scores $85 million in funding over five years, and the network will eventually be comprised of seven or eight partners, worldwide. Most notable is that Pfizer is planting a lab with a few dozen researchers adjacent to the UCSF campus to facilitate the scientific exchange.

9. Finally, New Blood Thinners

This year saw the FDA approval of a viable alternative to coumadin (aka warfarin), a 50-plus-year-old workhorse blood thinner that interacts with many foods and herbal supplements.

Boehringer’s Pradaxa (dabigatran) got a unanimous thumbs-up from an FDA panel for preventing stroke in patients with a common abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation. FDA approved the drug in October. The next new warfarin alternative to be approved could be Xarelto (rivaroxaban), which has had favorable results in recent Phase III clinical trials, as David Kroll over at Terra Sig explained. Both Xarelto and Pradaxa had already been approved for short term use outside the US.

Rivaroxaban and dabigatran work at different stages of the biochemical cascade that leads to clotting, as we illustrated here. Another drug candidate in the warfarin-alternative pipeline is BMS’s and Pfizer’s apixaban. Check out coverage of apixaban trials here and at Terra Sig. And in a separate blood-thinner class, FDA today rejected Brilinta, a possible competitor to mega-blockbuster Plavix.

10. Alzheimer’s Progress & Setbacks

Alzheimer’s disease has been a tough nut to crack, and news in 2010 has done little to dispel this reputation. This year Medivation’s Dimebon, which started life as a Russian antihistamine and showed some promise against Alzheimer’s, tanked in its first late-stage clinical trial. Later in the year, Eli Lilly halted development of semagacestat after the compound actually worsened cognition in Alzheimer’s patients. Semagacestat targeted the enzyme gamma-secretase, and the New York Times and other outlets reported the news as shaking confidence into a major hypothesis about what causes Alzheimer’s and how to treat it– the amyloid hypothesis.

But not everyone agreed with that assertion. Take Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard, who told C&EN this year (subscription link) that semagacestat’s troubles may have been due to the drug’s incomplete selectivity for gamma-secretase.

This year Greengard’s team discovered a potential way to sidestep the selectivity issue, by targeting a protein that switches on gamma-secretase and steers it away from activities that can lead to side effects. Greengard thinks the amyloid hypothesis is very much alive. But the final word on the amyloid hypothesis will come from trial results in next year and beyond, for drugs such as BMS-708163, Bristol Myers Squibb’s gamma-secretase inhibitor.

11. Avandia (Barely) Hangs On

Avandia was once the top selling diabetes medication in the world, but in 2010 long-running rumblings about the drug’s cardiovascular risks reached fever pitch. By the fall, Avandia was withdrawn from the European Union market and heavily restricted in the US.

Avandia (rosiglitazone) helps diabetics control their blood sugar levels by making cells more responsive to insulin. Widespread scrutiny of Avandia dates back to 2007, when a study led by Vioxx-whistleblower and Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steve Nissen suggested Avandia increased the risk of heart attacks. In February 2010, a leaked government report that recommended Avandia be pulled from the market made headlines. In July, an FDA advisory panel voted on what to do about Avandia, and the results were a mixed bag, with most panel members voting either to pull the drug entirely or add severe restrictions. In the end, FDA sided with the “restrict” panelists- Avandia is still on the market, but it can only be prescribed to patients who can’t control their blood sugar with a first-line medication.

Clearly, researchers still have a lot to learn about how the drugs in Avandia’s class work. But we enjoyed reading Derek Lowe’s self-characterized rant about just how much effort has been put in so far. Among several other drugs in Avandia’s class, Rezulin (troglitazone) was pulled from the market many years ago because of adverse effects on the liver, but Actos (pioglitazone) remains on the market and appears to be safe.

12. Executive Musical Chairs

The year after a trio of mega-mergers and at a time when patent losses are piling up, drug companies shook up their management. The most notable changes came at Pfizer: First, the company abandoned its two-headed approach to R&D leadership and picked Michael Dolsten, former head of R&D at Wyeth, to lead research. Martin Mackay, Pfizer’s head of R&D, meanwhile jumped ship to lead R&D at AstraZeneca. Then, in a move that took everyone by surprise, Pfizer’s CEO Jeff Kindler suddenly stepped down and Ian Reade took over. At, Merck, president Kenneth Frazier will take over as CEO in January;  Richard T. Clark will stay on as chairman of Merck’s board. And just this week, Sanofi-Aventis saidformer NIH director Elias Zerhouni would replace Marc Cluzel as head of R&D, while Merck KGaA appointed Stefan Oschmann as head of pharmaceuticals. Oschmann comes on from Merck & Co., where he was president of emerging markets.

In the biotech world, the most notable shift came in June, when George Scangos moved over from leading Exelixis totake the top job at Biogen Idec.

13. RNAi Rollercoaster

The year has been a tumultuous one for RNAi technology. Leaders in siRNA technology are experiencing growing pains as they try to turn promising science into commercialized products. Alnylam, arguably the best-known and biggest player in the RNAi arena, laid off 25% of its staff after Novartis decided not to extend its pact with Alnylam. Things only got worse when Roche announced it was exiting RNAi research, a move that hit its development partners Alnylam and Tekmira. Roche seemed to be primarily worried about delivery, an issue that is holding the field back from putting more RNAi-based therapeutics into the clinic.

But it’s not all bad news: the year brought a spate of big-ticket deals for companies developing other kinds of RNAi technology. GSK signed on to use Isis Pharmaceuticals’ antisense technology, which uses single-stranded rather than double-stranded oligonucleotides. And Sanofi entered into a pact with Regulus, the microRNA joint venture between Isis and Alnylam, worth $740 million. Further, Isis and Genzyme made some progress with mipomersen, the cholesterol drug developed using Isis’ antisense technology.

14. Revival of Interest in Cancer Metabolism

In cancer research, the old was new again in 2010, with a flurry of publications about depriving cancer cells of their energy source by taking advantage of quirks in their metabolism. That idea has been around since the 1920′s- when German biochemist Otto Warburg noticed differences in how cancer cells and normal cells deal with glucose. This year, Celgene handed over $130 million upfront for access to any cancer drugs that come out of Massachusetts biotech Agios Pharmaceuticals’ labs. One target in Agios’s crosshairs is an enzyme involved in glucose metabolism- pyruvate kinase M2. In addition to the Celgene/Agios deal, we noted that AstraZeneca and Cancer Research UK are in a three-year pact related to cancer metabolism, and the technology behind GlaxoSmithKline’s much-talked-about $720 million purchase of Sirtris has to do with depriving cells of energy.

15. More Job Cuts

Not to end this list on a sour note, but it wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the ongoing narrative of layoffs and retooling at drug companies. This year brought brutal cuts at AstraZeneca, GSK, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Abbott, along with the widespread and ongoing layoffs at Pfizer and Merck. Several features in C&EN looked at the impact the cuts are having on chemists:

How some laid-off pharma chemists migrate to new careers

How academic programs are adapting

And the views from the ground in New England and California, two hotbeds of pharma/biotech (hint- it ain’t pretty).

For more jobs insight, join the discussions happening with Chemjobber and Leigh aka Electron Pusher, and check out their chemistry jobs blog roundtable, which just wrapped today.

Author: Lisa Jarvis and Carmen Drahl

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