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Merck Jumps into Antibody-Drug Conjugates With Ambrx Deal

Merck today has jumped into what has become one of the hottest areas in oncology, antibody-drug conjugates, through a deal with San Diego-based Ambrx. Merck will pay $15 million upfront and up to $288 million in milestones for access to Ambrx’s site-specific protein conjugation technology.

Coincidentally, on the cover of today’s magazine, we take a look at the future of antibody-drug conjugate technology. Although people have been working on ADCs for three decades, interest in the approach has reached fever pitch after last year’s approval Seattle Genetics’ lymphoma drug Adcetris and the recent hubbub at ASCO over positive interim Phase III data for Genentech’s T-DM1.

The idea behind ADCs is simple: use a targeted antibody to deliver a highly potent chemotherapeutic to a cancer cell, sparing healthy cells. But current ADC technology has limitations. This week’s cover story looks at efforts to improve upon each component—the antibody, the small molecule, and the “linker” that connects the two.

Ambrx is focused on the antibody, using site specific protein conjugation technology to better control how many and where small molecules are placed on an antibody. Currently, companies manufacturing ADCs (most using technology from Seattle Genetics or ImmunoGen) wind up with a heterogenous product—each ADC has anywhere from zero to eight small molecules attached to the protein, but on average, 3.5 to four small molecule “payloads” linked. The placement of the payloads on the antibody also varies, leading to families of conjugates. As I explain in today’s story, even among the ADCs with four small molecules attached, some have all the cytotoxins clustered in one region, but they might be spread out on others.

Ambrx incorporates a nonnatural amino acid into the antibody to allow precise placement of the drug payload. As I explain:

Ambrx can insert p-acetyl-phenylalanine onto two sites of the antibody. The phenyl- alanine derivative has been modified to include a ketone that acts as a functional group for conjugation to the linker and small molecule.

Although Ambrx can attach more than two chemistry “handles” to the antibody, its studies have shown that two small molecules make the most sense. “You really want to be mindful about preserving the native structures and function of the antibody, while trying to optimize therapeutic activity,” says Chief Technology Officer Ho Cho. “The more you stray away from that, the more risks there are in drug development.”

The beauty of site-specific conjugation, researchers say, is that it allows them to me- thodically determine which ADC variety is the most active. “We can specifically attach whatever payload-linker combo we wish and do quantitative experiments to find out how it works,” Cho says. His team tests biophysical stability, pharmacokinetics, and efficacy to understand how much of the drug can be given before toxicity kicks in.

The ADCs in the current clinical pipeline are all to combat cancer, but Ambrx believes its site-specific conjugation technology will open the door to using ADCs in other therapeutic areas. As Cho told me, the heterogeneous nature of current ADCs has limited their use. “What we’re excited about is taking this into non-oncology indications,” Cho says. “We’ve started to generate some interesting pre-clinical data sets…This is where Ambrx really thinks the field is moving.”

It’s worth noting is that Ambrx was founded by Scripps Research Institute’s Peter Schultz, who Merck recently appointed head of Calibr, a San Diego-based non-profit funded by the big pharma firm that will act as a vehicle for academic scientists to turn their ideas into drug candidates. For more on Calibr, click here.




Drug Candidate Structures Revealed At #ACSAnaheim

1PM Pacific: There’s one hour left before chemists will pack a ballroom in Anaheim to see potential new drugs’ structures unveiled for the first time. Watch this space for updates.

2:39PM Pacific: CEP-26401
This drug candidate now has a name: irdabisant
company: Cephalon
meant to treat: deficits in cognition and/or attention in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia
mode of action: inverse agonist of histamine H3 receptor, which regulates several neurotransmitter pathways involved in cognition, attention, memory
medicinal chemistry tidbits: Cephalon’s goal was to bring a high quality compound to the clinic to define the utility, if any, of H3 antagonists for these indications. The team studied compounds in this area that failed. Among the things they learned was that several adverse events could be tied to drug candidates’ lipophilicity. So the team prioritized lipophilicity and other such characteristics in its discovery workflow. status in the pipeline: completing Phase I in the beginning of April 2011, advancing to Phase II
structure coming soon!
UPDATED 3/29 with structure:


3:16PM Pacific: BMS-663068
company: Bristol-Myers Squibb
meant to treat: HIV
mode of action: inhibits HIV attachment to host cells by binding to the viral envelope gp120 protein and interfering with its attachment to host CD4 receptors
medicinal chemistry tidbits: potency and getting the drug candidates to reach the bloodstream efficiently were key. Replacing a methoxy group on with heterocycles, such as triazoles, gave a big boost in potency.
status in the pipeline: Completed Phase IIa clinical trials. Phase IIb studies are planned for later this year.


4:24PM Pacific:LX1031
company: Lexicon
meant to treat: irritable bowel syndrome
mode of action: blocks a subtype of tryptophan hydroxylase, the rate-limiting enzyme in serotonin synthesis, in the gut.
medicinal chemistry tidbits: Lexicon started their medchem program with an open mind. They could have made a molecule that was exquisitely selective for the subtype of tryptophan hydroxylase in the gut, they could avoid hitting the other subtype by making their molecule stay out of the brain, or both. They ultimately ended up using the latter strategy, making molecules slightly on the heavy side (above 500 or 550 molecular weight) and adding groups like a carboxylic acid, that tend to keep things out of the brain.
status in the pipeline: Completed Phase IIa clinical trials.

5:30PM Pacific: MK-0893
company: Merck
meant to treat: type 2 diabetes
mode of action: blocks the receptor for the hormone glucagon. Glucagon is released by the pancreas in response to falling glucose levels.
medicinal chemistry tidbits: Merck kept several chemical scaffolds in play during this research program. But the team’s big breakthrough was adding a methyl group to the benzylic position of a promising compound, which greatly improved potency. This methyl group strategy hadn’t worked for previous compound series, but the team revisited it anyway.
status in the pipeline: Completed some Phase II trials, according to clinicaltrials.gov

company: Elan
meant to treat: Alzheimer’s disease
mode of action: blocks gamma-secretase, a key enzyme in the production of amyloid-beta, the peptide behind the plaques that mar Alzheimer’s patients’ brains.
medicinal chemistry tidbits: Adding a cyclopropyl group and a trifluoromethyl group enhanced molecules’ metabolic stability.
status in the pipeline: discontinued because of adverse liver side effects unrelated to its mode of action.

5:31PM Pacific: That’s all for now, folks. I hope to update with more structure information later. Watch for my full story on this symposium in a mid-April issue of C&EN.

First Time Drug Disclosures at #ACSAnaheim

Medicinal chemists, it’s that time of year once again. Time for the ACS National Meeting, and the accompanying symposium where drug companies reveal the structures of drug candidates in clinical trials for the first time. I’ll be on the ground in Anaheim and will be posting from that session (which lasts from 2PM-5PM Pacific Sunday the 27th) and others. Here is the Anaheim Division of Medicinal Chemistry program (pdf).
And here is the list of disclosures:

  • Discovery and characterization of CEP-26401: A potent, selective histamine H3 receptor inverse agonist: R. Hudkins, Cephalon
  • Discovery of BMS-663068, an HIV attachment inhibitor for the treatment of HIV-1: J. Kadow, Bristol-Myers Squibb
  • Discovery and development of LX1031, a novel serotonin synthesis inhibitor for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: A. Main, Lexicon
  • Discovery of MK-0893: A glucagon receptor antagonist for the treatment of type II diabetes: E. Parmee, Merck
  • Discovery of ELND006: A selective γ-secretase inhibitor: G. Probst, Elan

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.

Platensimycin On My Mind

Yesterday we posted a Latest News item that heralds a potential new class of antibiotics. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, because I worked on the total synthesis of a potential new antibiotic in graduate school. Of course, my time in grad school also taught me not to trumpet ‘potential new antibiotics’ as the next big wonder drugs, because the molecules in question almost always have yet to be tested in people, a process that seldom goes perfectly smoothly.

There was a slightly different twist to this story that made me think it deserved attention: it seems to be nudging researchers and saying, “Don’t get so caught up in the hoopla of fancy genomics technology that you ignore old antibiotic targets that still need exploring.”

In the study, researchers at GlaxoSmithKline, in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust’s Seeding Drug Discovery Initiative and the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, found a small molecule that blocks DNA gyrase, or type IIA topoisomerase, in an entirely new way. The molecule was effective against a panel of drug resistant bacteria and revealed new nuances of the gyrase mechanism to boot.

Since the news story discussed revisiting old antibiotic targets, I thought I’d spend some time reminding Haystack readers of a search for a new one. Over the last few years, C&EN has extensively covered the story of platensimycin, a promising antibacterial with an exciting target, first isolated from a South African soil sample.

Here’s an abbreviated platensimycin timeline:

May 2006: Merck researchers report the structure of platensimycin and describe its intriguing activity- it blocks FabF, an enzyme involved in fatty acid synthesis, one that has never before been targeted by antibiotics used in the clinic.

October 2006: K.C. Nicolaou group at Scripps Research Institute reports the first total synthesis of racemic platensimycin, setting the stage for making analogs for exploring its bioactivity.

April 2008: Lisa Jarvis’s C&EN cover story counts platensimycin among the natural product antibiotics in development.

March 2009: Microbiologists report that pathogens can scavenge lipids from their mammalian hosts, suggesting that platensimycin’s target (part of the lipid synthesis pathway) may not be a viable target for an antibiotic, after all.

August 2010: I contacted Merck to ask about the current status of platensimycin. Here is what Dr. Sheo Singh, Merck Research Labs Director of Medicinal Chemistry, who led the discovery team on platensimycin in 2006, had to say: “As part of the merger integration of Merck and Schering-Plough, platensimycin is being evaluated and prioritized along with all the other compounds in the early stage pipeline.”

China, Heparin, And Heterogeneity

The antithrombin-III binding domain of heparin illustrates the chemical variety of the drug.

Back in 2007 and 2008, tainted heparin from China was responsible for the deaths of over 80 people in the U.S. If you had some sort of warm and fuzzy reassurance that authorities were looking into the matter, a new congressional probe should quash that feeling pretty quickly. Today the Wall Street Journal reported that the probe, by two congressmen from Texas, has found that China never looked into the heparin scandal at all. This is despite repeated warnings from FDA, as C&EN wrote last year.

The probe comes ahead of FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg’s first trip to China in her new official capacity. The congressmen, Reps. Joe Barton and Michael Burgess, urged the commissioner to bring the issue up during her trip. According to the WSJ, a spokeswoman for China’s State Food and Drug Administration said the results of the probe were “not true.”

It’s a shame this scandal had to happen at all- all because heparin, a drug so many people rely on, is easier to harvest from a pig intestine than it is to make in the lab. Continue reading →

Merck Adds to Industry-wide R&D Cuts

Merck is finally revealing details of the deep cuts it planned to make in its organization following its acquisition of Schering-Plough. We thought this would be a good time to remind readers of the extensive R&D cuts the pharmaceutical industry has made in the last two years. One has to wonder what will be left to trim during the next round of cost-savings efforts. For a more complete chart that shows how this process started back in 2008, see here.


January: Pfizer buys Wyeth, plans to eliminate 15% of the combined workforce of about 128,000.

March: Merck acquires Schering-Plough, plans to cut 15% of combined workforce of 106,000.

April: Sanofi-Aventis overhauls its pipeline. Research on 14 drug and vaccine candidates, including seven in Phase II or III trials, is discontinued.

September: Lilly reorganizes into five units—oncology, diabetes, established markets, emerging markets, and animal health—and plans to eliminate 5,500 jobs, or nearly 14% of employees, by the end of 2011.

November: Pfizer plans to shutter six of its 20 research sites to reduce overall lab space by 35%. Research will end in South Brunswick, N.J.; Chazy and Rouses Point, N.Y.; Sanford, N.C.; and Gosport and Slough, England. Roughly 1,300 researchers work at the locations earmarked for closure.


January: GSK proposes ending R&D at several sites, including Tonbridge, England; Verona, Italy; Zagreb, Croatia; and Poznań, Poland. Preclinical development ends in Mississauga, Ontario, and neurosciences drug activity closes in Harlow, England.

February: AstraZeneca plans to cut 8,000 jobs on top of the 15,000 positions targeted for elimination between 2007 and 2009. The company drops 20 compounds from development and ends discovery research in 10 diseases and most vaccines. It will close sites in Leicestershire and Cambridge, England, and Lund, Sweden, and end discovery research in Wilmington, Del.

May: Takeda plans to cut 1,600 jobs from its North American operations, including 20% of staff at its Lake Forest, Ill., R&D center.

July: GSK sells its Verona, Italy, site to Aptuit, transferring 500 staff—almost all graduate-level scientists—to the contract research organization.

July: Merck says it will cut exit operations at eight R&D sites and eight manufacturing sites as part of its previously announced plans to shed 15% of its combined workforce following the acquisition of Schering-Plough. R&D facilities to be phased out over the next two years are: Montreal, Canada; Boxmeer (Nobilon facility only), Oss, and Schaijk, Netherlands; Odense, Denmark; Waltrop, Germany; Newhouse, Scotland; and Cambridge (Kendall Square), Massachusetts, U.S. Manufacturing facilities affected include sites in Comazzo, Italy; Cacem, Portugal; Azcapotzalco, Mexico; Coyoacan, Mexico, and Santo Amaro, Brazil. The Mirador, Argentina, and Miami Lakes, Florida, facilities will be sold. Chemical manufacturing will be phased out at the legacy Merck site in Singapore, but the legacy Schering-Plough site there will continue operations.

Merck’s Kamarck Talks Biosimilars

Reuters has a report out today on the potential market for biosimilars, or generic versions of biologic drugs. The players will be few, and the challenges many, the report suggested.

“Access to the nascent market for so-called biosimilars, worth an estimated $10 billion (6.6 billion pounds) by 2015, will be limited to a close circle of specialist companies with the means to invest heavily and to fend off a legal onslaught, analysts said.”

Coincidentally, I sat down earlier this week with Michael Kamarck, the new head of the company’s biosimilars arm Merck Bioventures. Kamarck, who previously headed up biologics manufacturing at Wyeth, had a strikingly similar perspective on the market. He also expects few players based on a high barrier to entry. Biosimilars players will need to have technology capabilities (see Genzyme’s woes for the challenges of manufacturing biologic products), the financial mettle to conduct large clinical trials, the ability to navigate a still fuzzy regulatory pathway, and the right commercial strategy once a biosimilar is approved.

When asked about drug pricing, Kamarck noted that in markets with a limited number of players, prices tend to stabilize after an initial drop. The biosimilars approved in Europe generally cost about 70% of the innovator’s price, and he expects the U.S. market will shake out in a similar way. “We think that’s a good model and provides a fair return and a large advantage for patients,” he said.

Why so little of a discount? As the Reuters article explains, the “development, production and marketing of a copycat version of biological drugs already cost about 50 times the amount needed to launch a generic copy of conventional chemical drugs.”

However, biosimilars players could have an advantage of more cost-effective manufacturing. When asked whether he was worried about innovators simply lowering their price or selling their own biosimilars, a strategy Amgen seems prepared to pursue, Kamarck pointed to the significant improvements in yields of the mammalian cell culture lines used to make many top-selling biologics. The innovator, on the other hand, has to go through FDA to make changes to their manufacturing process. “It might well be that coming into the game now, you can make manufacturing improvements to the processes that the innovator is stuck with,” he adds.

Merck has two biosimilars, both acquired last year from Insmed, in the clinic: MK-4214 and MK-6302, generic versions of Amgen’s Neupogen and Neulasta, respectively. The company plans to  have five biosimilars in late development n 2012, though isn’t identifying which innovator medicines they will be copying. Development of MK-2578, a similar version of Amgen’s Aranesp, was abandoned earlier this year due to regulatory and market challenges for erythropoietin-stimulating agents. The drug had been considered a “biobetter” rather than a biosimilar, because it was being made using yeast-based technology rather than the same kind of cell line as Amgen’s drug.

Vertex Unveils Positive Telaprevir Data

Ending months of anticipation, Vertex Pharmaceuticals unveiled the first set of data from a Phase III trial of telaprevir, a protease inhibitor for the treatment of hepatitis C. The company is expected to submit for regulatory approval later this year, and launch the drug in 2011.

Vertex said that 75% of genotype-1 patients—viewed as the toughest to treat–who received 12 weeks of telaprevir treatment on top of the current standard of care (48 weeks of pegylated interferon and ribavirin) were cured of the infection. Only 44% of patients in the control arm, which received only the standard of care, were cured after 48 weeks. Leerink Swann analyst Seamus Fernandez told investors the results set an “impressively high bar” for treatment in HCV.

Importantly, adding the drug to the standard of care will lessen the total treatment time for many HCV patients. In addition to not being very effective, many people can’t tolerate the harsh side effects associated with interferon and ribavirin. Physicians liken the 48-week regimen to living with a nasty flu for a year. In hopes of halving the number of weeks on interferon and ribavirin, Vertex conducted what is called a “response-guided trial.” If the virus was sufficiently quelled after four weeks with the telaprevir addition, patients went on to receive just 24 weeks total of therapy. The company said “the majority” of patients received just 24 weeks of treatment.

That 24-week figure is a critical one. Merck is hot on Vertex’s heels with its own protease inhibitor, boceprevir. Both companies are expected to launch their drugs next year, and with similarly mild safety issues, analysts say the drug that can shut down the disease the quickest will win. Merck is also conducting a response-guided study and at its R&D day said a retrospective look at its Phase II data suggests patients can be successfully treated in 24 weeks with boceprevir.

BMO Capital Markets analyst Jason Zhang was dead on with his estimates for the drug. As we wrote earlier this month: Zhang expected the Phase III data to show a sustained viral response (the equivalent of a cure) of 75% of patients receiving telaprevir. His guess for telaprevir’s biggest competitor, Merck’s boceprevir? 74% sustained viral response. We’ll have to wait and see how close he comes on that figure, as Merck has been vague about when its Phase III results will be released. The big pharma firm has only said that it expects to present the data at an upcoming conference. My guess? We will likely be waiting for the American Association of Liver Disease’s annual shindig, also known as “The Liver Meeting,” in October.

For Vertex, the Phase III success is a major step in its 15-year long quest in bringing telaprevir to market. Zhang expects it to capture over half the U.S. and European HCV market, bringing in $3.6 billion in peak sales in 2013.

Merck Unveils Overhauled Pipeline

I’m in Whitehouse Station, N.J., today to get a birds-eye view of Merck’s overhauled pipeline following last year’s merger with Schering-Plough. The company is unveiling its pipeline as part of an overall business briefing for investors. Here are a few highlights after the R&D segment of today’s meeting:

–The company has jettisoned what had been expected to be its first biosimilars product, MK-2578, a pegylated form of erythropoietin that would have gone up against Amgen’s Aranesp. The product has been developed using technology acquired for $400 million in 2006 from GlycoFi, which figured out how to coax yeast into make homogeneous glycoforms. Peter Kim, president of Merck Research Laboratories, said that regulatory authorities indicated that given the safety concerns over erythopoeitin stimulating agents, the company would have to conduct a cardiovascular assessment for MK-2578. The delay—and one can assume the cost—caused the company to ditch the project. Merck BioVentures, its biologics business, still has two biosimilars in the clinic, and plans to have five in Phase III trials by 2012.

–Merck devoted a lot of time to its cardiovascular business, which seems to be almost an even distribution of legacy Schering-Plough and Merck products. Vorapaxar (Schering-Plough), in Phase III; betrixaban (Merck), expected to enter Phase III trials next year; Brinavess (Merck), a novel multi-ion channel blocker under regulatory review in Europe; Acadesine (Schering-Plough), an adenosine-regulating molecule in Phase III trials; Tredaptive (Merck), extended-release niacin combined with laropiprant, a compound that prevents flushing, expected to be submitted for regulatory approval in 2012; and anacetrapib (Merck), a reversible inhibitor of CETP in Phase III studies.

–Kim came out swinging in a discussion of boceprevir, a protease inhibitor for Hepatitis C compound that he called “potentially the most impactful near-term product” for Merck. Without ever mentioning boceprevir’s biggest potential competitor, Vertex Pharmaceutical’s telaprevir, by name, Kim went through a point-by-point discussion of areas where boceprevir might have an advantage over telaprevir. Neither Vertex nor Merck have unveiled Phase III data on their drugs, but as discussed in last week’s magazine, analysts have given telaprevir an edge over boceprevir on several fronts: its side effect profile appears milder (telaprevir causes a rash, boceprevir exacerbates anemia already caused by ribavirin, one of the two drugs given as the current standard of care) and, importantly, it appears to decrease treatment time to 24 weeks from 48 weeks. Kim described a “post-hoc” analysis of Phase II data for boceprevir that suggests it could also be effective after just 24 weeks. A Phase III study for boceprevir plus standard of care includes a “response-guided therapy” arm, which means that patients who have undetectable levels of the virus at four weeks after boceprevir treatment will stop standard of care therapy after 24 weeks. Merck expects to submit for regulatory approval for boceprevir later this year.

–Kim also walked through the differences between Odanacatib, the cathepsin K inhibitor in Phase III trials for osteoporosis, and Fosomax, its osteoporosis drug that has already lost patent protection. On the tolerability front, he pointed out that Odanacatib appears to have milder gastrointestinal side effects than Fosamax. The new drug appears to be just as effective at decreasing bone resorption as Fosamax, but offers improvements on the bone formation front.