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FDA’s Woodcock Talks Obesity Drug Safety

Janet Woodcock, head of FDA’s drugs center, had a few things to say about obesity drugs at Monday’s Reuters Health Summit in New York. Some of her comments weren’t surprising. But some of them might offer a sliver of hope to companies hoping to succeed where Arena Pharmaceuticals, Orexigen Therapeutics, and Vivus have so far failed– in bringing a new diet pill to market.

From a Reuters story, which was brought to my attention via Twitter by David Pittman, a former C&EN contributor now working at FDA News (Thanks for the tip, David!):

For diet drugs, Woodcock said companies might find success by showing benefits beyond weight loss such as a decrease in blood pressure or reversal of diabetes.

“Those would be benefits you might accept more risk for,” Woodcock said. The FDA recently rejected diet drugs with various safety issues from Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc (ARNA.O), Orexigen Therapeutics Inc (OREX.O) and Vivus Inc (VVUS.O). The agency also asked Abbott Laboratories Inc (ABT.N) to withdraw its diet medicine, Meridia, from the market due to heart risks and the company agreed.

It’s not surprising to hear Woodcock say that a potential weight loss pill’s risks must be balanced by clear benefits. Having positive effects on things that can be consequences of obesity, such as blood pressure and blood sugar control, is one way of achieving that balance. Another way is to show FDA that your risks aren’t all that risky. On that topic, I was intrigued to read Arena’s announcementthat it isn’t conducting the 12-month study FDA asked for to evaluate how its obesity drug candidate lorcaserin caused tumors in rats, and is conducting a three-month study instead.

Now, what really caught my eye in Woodcock’s statements was this gem: Continue reading →

Contrave Rejection and Obesity Drugs’ Future

Today’s a somber day for anyone looking to develop a weight-loss medication. Orexigen’s potential obesity drug Contrave has failed to win FDA approval, just as Arena’s Lorqess and Vivus’s Qnexa before it. In other words, none of the big contenders in the diet drug race we’ve been covering for nearly a year has panned out.

Contrave came into FDA decision-day with a a glimmer of hope behind it. Last December, an FDA panel voted in favor of approving Contrave, though they recommended that Orexigen conduct a clinical trial after approval to track the drug’s cardiovascular risk. In contrast, Lorqess and Qnexa hadn’t gotten a thumbs-up from the panel.

But the agency turned out to be more conservative than its advisory panel. In a so-called Complete Response Letter, FDA told Orexigen it needed to conduct that cardiovascular clinical trial BEFORE Contrave could be approved, not after approval. Orexigen’s stock fell over 70% on the news this morning. “Such a study would be huge, expensive, and would take years, and the request probably means that Contrave will never hit the market,” writes Forbes’s Matthew Herper.

So where do we go from here? I hesitate to say that the obesity drug field is dead. We’ll certainly continue to see scholarly papers about promising new obesity drug targets. But on the clinical side, the focus is going to have to shift away from weight loss to treating the conditions that tend to go hand-in-hand with obesity, like diabetes. That’s what could help tip the safety-efficacy balance in a way that leads to new drug candidates being approved by FDA. This is not a new idea- for instance, C&EN contributing editor Aaron Rowe has covered companies’ efforts to mimic bariatric surgery‘s beneficial effects on diabetes with a pill.

Pfizer is in Rowe’s story with a potential diabetes drug in clinical trials. The molecule targets an enzyme that reassembles triglycerides. One of its entries at clinicaltrials.gov says it all: “It is anticipated that PF 04620110 will have anti diabetic effects through inhibition of intestinal triglyceride absorption and potentially weight loss.” Pfizer exited obesity drug research in 2008. But it didn’t abandon efforts to treat some of the conditions that make obesity unhealthy. If targeting a certain enzyme happens to help with both diabetes symptoms and weight loss, so much the better. But weight loss isn’t the top priority.

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.

Good News for Contrave, Qnexa Could Be Next

Apparently, third time’s a charm in the obesity drug world. Yesterday afternoon, an FDA advisory panel recommended approving Contrave, an obesity pill being developed by Orexigen Therapeutics and Takeda. The positive vote came just months after two other obesity drugs, Vivus’ Qnexa and Arena Pharmaceutical’s Lorqess, were rejected.

There are plenty of caveats to the good news. First, FDA doesn’t always follow the advice of its advisory committees, although most analysts seem confident Contrave will make it onto the market. But Orexigen and Takeda will likely need to conduct a large, post-approval study to track cardiovascular issues, the details of which would be hammered out with FDA.

Second, excitement over the next pill for obesity should be tempered with the reality that Contrave has shown only minimal weight loss. Contrave is a combination of two already-approved drugs, the antidepressant buproprion and the addiction treatment naltrexone.

All that said, Orexigen stands to collect more money from Takeda if Contrave makes it to the finish line. Takeda paid just $50 million upfront to license the obesity drug, and will take on the lion’s share of the costs of a post-approval study.

The thumbs up for Contrave could also be good news for Vivus’ Qnexa, also a combination of two existing drugs (phentermine and topiramate). In July, an FDA advisory committee, concerned about the lack of long-term safety data for the drug, voted against its approval. FDA backed up that decision in October, issuing a complete response letter (its version of a rejection) citing birth defect worries and cardiovascular risks.

But yesterday’s panel was mainly focused on the cardiovascular risks associated with Contrave, and Qnexa is a cleaner drug on that front. One panel member, University of California, Davis, neurologist Michael Ragowski, even said he’d rather prescribe Qnexa versus Contrave. Vivus plans to submit a formal response to the CRL later this month, and FDA would provide its feedback in January. If all goes well, Vivus could gain approval for Qnexa in the second half of 2011, analysts say. Investors seemed optimistic on its chances, as Vivus’ stock is up over 20% in pre-market trading.

Orexigen is holding a conference call at 4:15pm this afternoon, to discuss the panel. If anything interesting comes out of it, we’ll be sure to update readers!

Orexigen And Takeda’s Contrave To Face FDA’s Panel Tuesday

Image: C&EN

Today FDA released its briefing documents for Orexigen and Takeda’s experimental obesity drug Contrave. And they’ve got more than one news outlet wondering whether the third time will be the charm in the obesity drug race. On Tuesday, FDA’s outside advisers will meet to review the potential drug and make recommendations on whether to approve it. You can read our ongoing coverage of Contrave as well as Arena’s Lorqess and Vivus’s Qnexa, the other two obesity drug candidates FDA reviewed, here.

At first glance, the documents don’t contain any big surprises in terms of safety or efficacy. And Orexigen’s had time to learn from what happened at the Lorqess and Qnexa panel meetings.

That said, Adam Feuerstein makes an interesting comparison- to Meridia, Abbott Labs’ diet pill that was pulled from the market this fall because of its cardiovascular risks. We’ve known that Contrave can raise blood pressure, but the memory of Meridia may influence some of FDA’s outside experts.

Contrave’s cardiovascular risk profile somewhat resembles Abbott Lab’s Meridia, which was recently pulled off the market after a September advisory panel meeting. Eight of the 10 experts who will be reviewing Contrave Tuesday voted to recommend Meridia’s withdrawal from the market due to the drug’s cardiovascular risks. These eight experts are the people Orexigen needs to be most worried about Tuesday.

An analyst at Rodman & Renshaw in New York had similar concerns in an interview with Bloomberg.

“They may have to do a thorough cardiovascular study before approval,” said Elemer Piros, an analyst at Rodman & Renshaw in New York, in a telephone interview today. “The clear precedent is Meridia. It’s so fresh in our minds that I don’t think the FDA wants to embark on a public experiment in an uncontrolled setting without this information.”

So if more studies will be needed, it’s a good sign that Leerink Swann analysts Joshua Schimmer and Steve Yoo are impressed with Orexigen’s long-term safety strategy, according to a note sent to investors.

While no FDA panel is without risk and the track record of obesity drugs at the Endocrine Division is unquestionably poor, we have been impressed with OREX’s strategic approach to tackling Contrave’s safety-issues head on and its rational explanation for a post-approval study commitment.

That’s important because at least some of what sank Vivus’s Qnexa at its FDA advisory panel evaluation was a desire for more long-term data.

But at the end of the day, panelists who voted ‘no’ felt like more long-term safety data was in order. From Feuerstein’s liveblog:
one of the “no” votes says obesity is a chronic disease, so tell me what happens to patients as they stay on the medication for years.

Like Qnexa, Contrave is a combination of two drugs that are already FDA-approved. But it remains to be seen whether Orexigen has learned enough from Vivus’s experience to put together a convincing case for the FDA panel.

Options abound for following Tuesday’s meeting. Lisa LaMotta, now at Elsevier Business Intelligence, will be covering the panel live. Follow her @BioWriterChik. Feuerstein will as well, @adamfeuerstein. And FDA will webcast the panel here.

FDA Rejects Vivus’s Obesity Drug Qnexa

As was widely expected, the Food and Drug Administration has rejected Vivus’s experimental weight-loss drug Qnexa, making it the second obesity drug in a week to be turned away by the agency. On Saturday, Arena Pharmaceuticals said it had received a complete response letter (CRL) for  its obesity drug Lorqess (lorcaserin), based largely on worries that the drug caused tumors in rats.

The biggest concerns in Vivus’ CRL were around birth defects and cardiovascular risk. Vivus had already submitted a plan to keep tabs on pregnancy and birth defects after the drug was approved, and the agency seems to want to continue evolving that monitoring strategy. FDA also wants data showing that the drug’s propensity to raise heart rate does not lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular events. If eventually approved, FDA said Qnexa would be considered a controlled substance along the lines of Xanax and Valium.

The good news  is that Vivus says it doesn’t believe it needs to generate any new clinical data to fulfill FDA’s requests. Further, the agency didn’t ask any questions about the drug’s ability to induce weight loss. In a conference call with investors this morning, Vivus CEO Leland Wilson said it would take the company about six weeks to prepare its response to the CRL, and depending on how FDA classifies the application, the drug could be reviewed two-to-six months after the submission. Shares of Vivus were up over 30% in pre-market trading.

As a reminder, Qnexa is the only drug in the three-way obesity race to lack a partner. Arena has licensed Lorqess to Esai, and Takeda has bought into Orexigen’s Contrave.

Qnexa is a combination of two drugs that are already FDA-approved: it’s a combination of topiramate, an antiseizure medication that enhances feelings of fullness, and phentermine, the “Phen” part of Fen-Phen, which was not linked to heart valve defects.

When FDA posted briefing documents in advance of the Qnexa panel meeting, we learned that the agency had no problem with Qnexa’s ability to help patients lose weight. But the committee had safety concerns in five areas: effects on pregnant women, cardiovascular risks, psychiatric events, cognitive events, and metabolic acidosis. Last July, an FDA panel thought that Vivus needed more long-term safety data on Qnexa and voted not to recommend the drug for approval. (Seven panel members voted for approval but nine recommended against approval.)

Arena’s Weight-Loss Pill Lorqess (lorcaserin): Waiting For FDA

Tomorrow is the deadline for the Food and Drug Administration to make a decision about whether or not to approve Arena Pharmaceuticals’ experimental obesity drug Lorqess (lorcaserin). In advance of the decision I’ve recapped some Lorqess news and information from the last several months. We will update you when FDA’s decision comes in.

Of the three potential new diet pills racing to reach the market, Lorqess (lorcaserin) is the only one where the active ingredient is a completely new molecule. Its competition, Vivus’s Qnexa and Orexigen’s Contrave, are both combinations of drug molecules that have already been FDA-approved for other conditions.

Lorqess targets an appetite-suppressing serotonin receptor located in the brain. It’s the same receptor that was targeted by fenfluramine, an ingredient in the infamous Fen-Phen obesity drug combo. Fenfluramine was associated with heart valve damage and a fatal lung disorder- it was pulled from the market in 1997.

Lorcaserin is different from fenfluramine- it is more selective for the specific subtype of serotonin receptor found in the brain and avoids the one that’s found in the heart. Arena’s idea behind Lorqess was that a more selective drug might have the weight-loss benefits with fewer side effects. Arena has had to pay special attention to safety throughout lorcaserin’s development and they haven’t run into heart valve trouble.

In July, Arena landed a partner for marketing Lorqess- Japan’s Eisai.

But last month, when an FDA panel met to discuss Lorqess, the outcome was disappointing for Eisai and Arena. Background materials for the panel session raised questions about malignant tumors that occurred in rats given high doses of lorcaserin. And the panel itself recommended that FDA not approve Lorqess by a 9 to 5 vote. The panel decided not enough data was available to assuage concerns about safety, and was also concerned about how the drug would work in a wider population than was tested during clinical trials. In the aftermath of the panel recommendation, analysts suggested a number of pieces of data that Arena could provide to improve its overall package of information about Lorqess, and thus the drug’s chances. But many of the suggestions, which included a detailed study of the mechanism behind the rat tumors, and a Phase II proof of concept trial of lorcaserin and phentermine in diabetics, take years, not months.

Today’s FDA decision is sure to set the tone for the next couple of months, since Lorqess is the first of the three big contenders to be judged. FDA could decide to ask for more data on Lorqess, or make a decision outright. Stay tuned.

Abbott Takes Diet Drug Meridia (Sibutramine) Off The Market

A diet pill bit the dust today- the Food and Drug Administration has asked Abbott Laboratories to take its drug Meridia off the market in the U.S. Meridia, or sibutramine, was approved by FDA in 1997, but the company voluntarily pulled Meridia after FDA’s request, and is also halting sales of the drug in Canada and Australia. FDA’s request was based mostly on a large study from last fall called the SCOUT trial. The trial suggested that patients on Meridia had more cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes, compared to patients taking a placebo.

“Meridia’s continued availability is not justified when you compare the very modest weight loss that people achieve on this drug to their risk of heart attack or stroke,” said John Jenkins, M.D., director of the Office of New Drugs in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), in an FDA press release. Continue reading →

What’s Next for Lorqess?

Arena Pharmaceuticals’ obesity drug candidate Lorqess was summarily dismissed by an FDA advisory committee yesterday, leaving many to wonder: what’s next? The panel had few questions about the drug’s efficacy, but voted it down in large part due to worrisome data showing high doses of the compound caused tumors in rats. So is there a way forward for Lorqess? Or will it be relegated to the annals of Dead-in-the-Water Obesity Drugs?

Analysts have mixed opinions on how Arena could get itself out of this pickle. Some think  the biotech could salvage the drug if it could offer up one key piece of information: the mechanism of action of the tumors seen in rats.

In a call with analyst this morning, Arena suggested it had already proven this point, noting that the presentation by Gary Williams, an expert on the mechanisms of carcinogenesis, showed that the rat findings did not translate to humans. “It’s a shame there were no carcinogenicity experts on the panel,” Arena’s president and CEO Jack Lief said. “My view is they were having difficulty understanding our presentation.” The company didn’t offer much guidance as to what other data it had on hand or other studies it could conduct to close the book on the issue.

Other industry watchers are focused on another issue the panel had: the unrealistic patient population in which Arena chose to test lorcaserin. They thought the people in the trial were not close enough to the kind of folks who would really be taking the drug in the real world–in other words, people with the kind of health complications typically associated with obesity.

Later this year, Arena will release data from its BLOOM-DM study, which is meant to test the drug’s efficacy in diabetics. Cowen & Co’s Phil Nadeau suggested that trial may satisfy the agency’s patient population worries.

But JPMorgan’s Cory Kasimov was less optimistic about the diabetes data providing reassurance about the drug’s safety. “With only 604 patients randomized to either drug or placebo (not to mention dropouts), it’s just way too small to generate any satisfactory answers,” Kasimov said in a note last night. Not to mention the drug has to show it still works in this tough-to-treat group.

BMO Capital analyst Jason Zhang suggested that another path forward would be for Arena to conduct a Phase II proof of concept trial of lorcaserin and phentermine in the right patient population (i.e. diabetics). He thinks the combination should be more effective at helping people shed weight than lorcaserin alone, and notes that data from Arena and academic researchers suggest the duo would not have the same heart  issues that sank the fenfluramine-phentermine combo. And improved weight loss might shift the risk-to-benefit ratio enough to make FDA more comfortable with approving the drug. The quandary, however, is that even if a combination trial was effective, chances are slim that anyone would cough up the money for a large, Phase III study.

The bottom line: doctors are unlikely to be writing out prescriptions for Lorqess any time soon. Analysts have taken sales estimates for the drugs off of their spreadsheets for the near future, with most saying 2013 is the most realistic timeframe for it to make it to the market.

FDA Panel Thumbs-Down For Arena and Eisai’s Diet Pill Lorcaserin (Lorqess)

Yesterday brought yet another disappointment to the obesity drug development field- an FDA panel recommended rejecting Arena and Eisai’s potential diet pill lorcaserin (Lorqess) by a vote of 9 to 5.

The message from the panelists was that not enough data was available to assuage concerns about safety, as well as concerns about how the drug would work in a wider population.

This marks the second thumbs-down for a prospective obesity drug this year. Vivus’s drug candidate Qnexa received a ‘no’ vote from the panel in July.

Going into the yesterday’s panel, the mood wasn’t exactly sunny. As I wrote yesterday, the FDA briefing documents for lorcaserin contained an unexpected safety surprise. Continue reading →