Biotech Strategy Blog

Commentary on Science, Innovation & New Products with a focus on Oncology & Hematology

Posts tagged ‘Biotechnology’

After I wrote my previous blog post about the emerging biotechnology region around Austin, TX, one of the comments I received was about the importance of networking opportunities within a cluster or region.

So I am pleased to have been invited to a medical technology-life science networking event in New York City (NYC) organized six times a year by Ted King of Saddlerock Advisors, Wendy Brown of Merrill Lynch and John Lieberman of Perelson Weiner.

The event, later today, has a format of a featured speaker and presentations by three emerging companies that provides them with the opportunity to network and showcase their technology, new drugs or medical devices to investors, industry partners, academics and researchers.

This evening there is a presentation on the proposed changes to the FDA’s 510(k) clearance process for medical device approval.  This is the route by which the majority of medical devices come to market by showing they are comparable to an existing approved or marketed product.

The three featured companies include BioView (an Israeli technology company involved in cell imaging and automation of genetic testing), Cel-Sci (a Virginia based biotech company that has as immunotherapy product in development about to enter a global phase III clinical trial in head and neck cancer) and PatienTech (a company that develops elastic-sheet, pressure sensing systems that can be used with medical devices).

It will be interesting to see who attends, and whether the presentations by the companies are what I consider to be the typical investor “puff and fluff” presentations, or whether there is any meaningful discussion of science, marketing strategy and new product development.

I was in Austin last week for a business meeting (spot the snow around the State Capitol) and was interested to learn that Austin, TX is an emerging and growing biotechnology cluster.

Michael Porter in the Harvard Business Review has written about the importance of clusters of interconnected companies, universities, suppliers and service providers and how these drive increased productivity, innovation and stimulate further new businesses.  An important contributor of growth and economic development is the pool of talented workers that develops and is attracted to the local area around the cluster.

Despite being better known for its high tech companies such as Dell, and as the “live music capital of the world”, there is an emerging biotech cluster around Austin. Austin boasts warm winter weather (most of the time), proximity to the flagship University of Texas at Austin, and the incentives of a tax friendly, State of Texas (no personal or corporate taxation).

According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, there are now more than 100 companies in the areas of research, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals and medical devices. These include Abbott Spine, Arthrocare Corp, Agilent, Alk-Abello, Asuragen, Luminex, Viagen and Zimmer Biologics. Although the University of Texas at Austin lacks a medical school, MD Anderson established a Science Park for basic and translational cancer research in the area.  This reminds me of similar facilities in La Jolla.

The University of Texas at Austin also provides a growing pool of educated workers, and I see the convergence of information technology in drug discovery, as where the many IT graduates with an interest in life sciences, can have an important role to play.  Bioinformatics and computational biology is becoming increasing important in cancer research, for example.

The University, like many others, provides an incubator for technology start-ups that has raised over $725M in funding.  You can read about the important role incubators have to play in the development of biotechnology companies in Christopher Pirie’s interesting article in the MIT Entrepreneurship Review).

However, what cements my view that Austin is an emerging cluster, is the fact that growing start-up companies are now choosing to relocate to Austin, rather than move to more established biotech areas such as Boston or Seattle.  Pain Therapeutics Inc. a San Mateo, CA company announced in October last year they would be moving to Austin by the end of 2011 and planned to hire 50-100 employees in Research & Development.  As more companies move to the Austin area, this trend is likely to continue.

If you are a growing, biotech start-up company, Austin should be on your radar of potential areas to build your business.

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My theme for blog posts this week has been the diagnosis and detection of Alzheimer’s Disease, a therapeutic area I was first introduced to while working as a Global Project Director at the Canadian CRO, CroMedica before it was acquired by PRA. The then CEO of CroMedica, Erich Mohr Ph.D is now Chairman and CEO of MedGenesis Therapeutix Inc. in Victoria, BC.

This privately held biopharmaceutical company is working on developing new products for neurological diseases and the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease, Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) and Intractable Epilepsy. I have added MedGenesis to my list of emerging biotechnology companies to watch, and look forward to writing further as their pipeline develops.

Which brings me back to Alzheimer’s disease (AD), an area which I think will touch many of us as we and our parents become older. Last week, I was visiting my elderly mother in England who struggles to remember when I am visiting, and has little or no short term memory. It’s sad to see her in a restaurant have a completely blank face when she goes up to a buffet, then cannot remember where she was sitting.

While we all have age-related decline in our memory as we get older, how do you know if it may be something more such as AD? The Alzheimer’s Association have published a useful list of 10 warning signs, that may suggest seeing a doctor:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
  3. Difficulty completing familiar task at home, at work or at leisure
  4. Confusion with time or space
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  8. Decreased or poor judgment
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
  10. Changes in mood or personality

While there is no cure for AD, early diagnosis using biomarkers (see my blog post on Lilly’s florbetapir and blog post on Novartis’ Aß40 oligomers), could lead to slowing disease progression as new therapeutic agents come through development to market.

Dementia, AD and other cognitive disorders are challenging for caregivers and family’s to deal with. In many ways a tangible, physical illness is easier.  Not knowing the rate of progression and the future, it is difficult to plan ahead. Helping my elderly mother maintain her independence in the face of the mental challenges she faces is something that we as a family have to face up to, as I am sure many others will too.

In a case of national significance to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry, the United States Supreme Court on January 7 decided to hear the case of Sorrell (Attorney General of Vermont) v. IMS Health Inc & Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

This case is about whether States have the right to regulate how physician prescriber data is sold and used, and whether physicians have a right to privacy in the use of their personal information. In Vermont, the legislature enacted a law that allowed prescribers on their annual licensing renewal to opt-out of allowing the use of information that would identify them in any data used for marketing or promotion of prescription drugs.

The Vermont law also states that “pharmaceutical manufacturers and pharmaceutical marketers shall not use prescriber-identifiable information for marketing or promoting a prescription drug” unless the prescriber consents. Vt Stat. Ann. 18, § 4631(d).

Without the identity of prescribers, companies such as IMS Health would not be able to provide the level of granularity about prescribing behavior that allows targeted detailing by medical representatives to take place.

Currently, individual patient names in the prescription data are redacted by encryption technology, but this process results in a unique identifier for each patient. Tracking this unique patient identifier coupled with the name of the physician allows the prescribing behavior of different doctors for a patient to be monitored. This has major significance to medical reps allowing them to identify physicians who: do or do not prescribe their products, switch patients to competitor products or use lower cost generics.

The Vermont legislature in 2009 passed the Prescription Confidentiality Law, 18 V.S.A. § 4631 that requires prescribers to give their consent to the use of personally identifiable information and allowed them the ability to opt-out at the time of license renewal.  In the absence of consent, all other prescription data was still available for use in marketing and promotion, but not the identity of the prescribing doctor. Not surprisingly this law was not well received by data mining companies such as IMS Health and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The District Court upheld the legal challenge to the Vermont law, while the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit over-turned it.  Similar laws in Maine and New Hampshire have been upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, raising a circuit conflict that the Supreme Court has now decided to resolve.

The Supreme Court decision will not only impact Vermont, but all those States who are interested in regulating this area.

The question presented to the Supreme Court for answer is:

“Whether a law that restricts access to information in nonpublic prescription drug records and affords prescribers the right to consent before their identifying information in prescription drug records is sold or used in marketing runs afoul of the First Amendment.”

The case of Sorrell v IMS Health raises multiple questions that the Supreme Court will have to consider at the intersection of information technology, privacy and commerce:

  1. If pharmacists are required by law to gather prescription data that identifies individual physicians and their prescribing habits, do States have the authority to regulate the use of this information?
  2. Does pharmacy prescribing data constitute commercial speech that is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution?
  3. And if it is protected, does the Vermont law meet the standard to regulate the use of this data in the marketing and promotion of prescription drugs?

These are all difficult questions of law, and I am sure that legal scholars will be busy writing amicus briefs in support of both sides of the debate.

However, I predict the decision in this case will also have a far-reaching impact on electronic privacy rights and the extent to which data mining can be regulated, not only in the pharmaceutical industry but across all industries.

Sales of pharmaceuticals are the fuel of the industry and provide the $ for investment in R&D, but could there be life without such in-depth IMS data?  Although medical sales might be less efficient and less targeted, the industry would survive and sales would still take place.  When I lived in the United Kingdom over ten years ago, IMS only provided prescribing data on the equivalent of a zip code level, but medical reps were still effective without knowing the identity of individual prescribers.  You could still work out which areas in a territory were important, and the key practices to target.

The case of Sorrell v IMS Health is one that all U.S. biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies will be watching with great interest given the tremendous impact it could have on the industry business model.  I look forward to writing an update as the case develops and oral argument is scheduled.

A conference on Innovation in Healthcare is being held in Cambridge, MA on Tuesday, February 1, 2011.

The speaker list is impressive and includes Michael Porter (Porter’s 5 forces model is well known to all MBA students), John Mendelsohn (President of MD Anderson), Janet Woodcock (Director of Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at FDA) and Peter Senge (author of the Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization).

The symposium, whose lead sponsor is Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, will discuss how to to improve the system for delivering healthcare services, and how to increase the productivity of translating biomedical research into medical innovation.  The conference certainly has ambitious goals in the topics it plans to cover!

Innovation to me is about adding value, whether that be in the delivery of a service or the development of a new product by a biotechnology company.  If you are in the Boston area on February 1, this one day symposium at MIT looks well worth attending, and the registration fee is inexpensive ($50).

As an update to this morning’s blog post that mentioned Vertex’s VX-770, the company have just announced their key business objectives for 2011.  Further information will be included in the presentation by Vertex at the JP Morgan Healthcare conference scheduled for later today.

The news in Cystic Fibrosis is that if the phase 3 clinical trial data is positive the NDA for VX-770 is expected in the second half of 2011.  The following are the relevant sections from the press release:

Cystic Fibrosis: Phase 3 Registration Program for VX-770 Nears Completion

VX-770 NDA Submission Planned for Second Half of 2011

  • Three trials of the novel cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator protein (CFTR) potentiator VX-770 are fully enrolled and ongoing as part of a global Phase 3 registration program focused on patients with the G551D mutation. The G551D mutation is present in approximately four percent of people with CF.
  • The first Phase 3 data for VX-770 are expected in the first quarter of 2011 and will come from the Phase 3 STRIVE trial in people aged 12 and older with at least one copy of the G551D mutation. Data from the Phase 2 DISCOVER trial, which was primarily a safety study that enrolled people aged 12 and older with two copies of the F508del mutation, are also expected in the first quarter of 2011.
  • Data from the Phase 3 ENVISION trial in people aged six to 11 with at least one copy of the G551D mutation are expected in mid-2011.
  • If positive, the results from the Phase 3 program for VX-770 could support the submission of an NDA for VX-770 in the second half of 2011.

In addition, Vertex announced that they expected interim data in the first half of 2011 from the phase 2 trial that combines VX-770 with VX-809:

Combination of Two CFTR Modulators for the Treatment of People with the Most Common Mutation of Cystic Fibrosis

  • Vertex is conducting a Phase 2a clinical trial to evaluate multiple combination regimens of its lead CFTR Modulators – VX-770, a CFTR potentiator, and VX-809, a CFTR corrector – in people with the most common mutation of CF, known as F508del. Enrollment is ongoing in Part One of the trial, which is designed to evaluate VX-809 (200 mg), or placebo, dosed alone for 14 days and in combination with VX-770 (150 mg or 250 mg), or placebo, for 7 days. Vertex expects to obtain interim data from Part One of the trial in the first half of 2011.

2011 looks to be an interesting year for Cystic Fibrosis and it is certainly positive to see biotechnology companies such as Vertex developing new products for this debilitating illness.

One of the exciting things about the biotechnology industry is its ability to innovate and translate developments in basic science into potential new drugs.

I previously wrote about denufosol in cystic fibrosis (CF), a disease that affects about 30,000 people in the United States and 70,000 worldwide.  The disease is characterized by the accumulation of mucus that leads to bacterial overgrowth and chronic lung infections. Mucus cannot be removed from the lung in CF due to abnormal mucociliary transport resulting from impaired epithelial chloride secretion and sodium hyperabsorption.  This is now known to be due to defective cystic fibrosis transmembrane regulator (CFTR) protein. A good overview of this can be found in the 2006 New England Journal of Medicine Editorial by Felix Ratjen, “Restoring Airway Surface Liquid in Cystic Fibrosis.”

A good overview of the pipeline of new drugs in development for CF can be found on the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation web site.  Vertex in particular has two drugs  (VX-809, VX-770) in late stage development that are cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulators, aimed at increasing CFTR function.  Phase 3 registration data for VX-770 is expected in the first half of 2011. I look forward to writing about the results.

Recently, a team from Johns Hopkins led by Neeraj Vij published a paper in the January 2011 issue of Journal of Immunology on the “Critical Modifier Role of Membrane-Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator-Dependent Ceramide Signaling in Lung Injury & Emphysema.”

The researchers found that lung damage in mice was associated with changes in the amount of CFTR in the cell surface membrane.  Decreases in the amount of CFTR were associated with increased ceramide, a trigger of inflammation of cell-death. Or as the the paper describes it:

“CFTR expression inversely correlates with severity of emphysema and ceramide accumulation in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease subjects compared with control subjects.”

The emergence of inflammation as a key role in chronic disease was the subject of a previous blog post about diabetes, so is interesting to see another area where it is involved.

This basic research shows that developing drugs that target CFTR and mediate ceramide may have an important role to play in the treatment of emphysema, a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that affects 2 million Americans.  Translational medicine that can take basic science and apply it to clinical practice is key to the long term success of the biotechnology industry.

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Thanks to Adam Feuerstein of TheStreet for breaking the news this morning, that shares in Inspire Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISPH) have plunged following the announcement of negative data from the phase 3, TIGER-2 clinical trial for denufosol in cystic fibrosis.

According to the Chief Medical Officer at Inspire Pharma: “The analysis of the primary endpoint, key secondary endpoints and select subgroup populations in TIGER-2 indicates an absence of meaningful treatment benefit in this patient population.

I wrote a blog post last week about denufosol and the hope that this drug offered to cystic fibrosis patients despite the uncertainty about its clinical effectiveness.

The latest data is disappointing and a major setback to Inspire Pharma. It highlights the risk/reward situation that many emerging biotechnology companies face with new product development, the hope that they will make it to market, coupled with the reality that many will fail.

The December 17, 2010 issue of “Science” has the catchy of title of “Insights of the Decade”, one of which is an article by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, “Inflammation Bares a Dark Side”, that describes the ubiquitous role of inflammation. She concludes that:

“Mediating inflammation in chronic diseases is a new frontier, its success is still uncertain.”

Inflammation has been shown to play an important role in multiple chronic illnesses such as cancer, and in type 2 diabetes it promotes insulin resistance and the death of pancreatic beta cells.  In 2007, Marc Donath and colleagues published a landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine where he used the drug anakinra, in patients with type 2 diabetes, to block interleukin-1 (IL-1), a cytokine that mediates the inflammatory response. The conclusion of the paper was that:

“The blockade of interleukin-1 with anakinra improved glycemia and beta-cell secretory function and reduced markers of systemic inflammation.”

The finding that diabetes patients whose inflammatory response was blocked did better, has led several companies to work on drug development in this area.

One of these is the biotechnology company, Xoma, whose stocked jumped 200% in the week before Christmas.  Although there was no press release or announcement of any company news, it looks like investors decided to take a gamble that the phase 2 trial results for Xoma 052 in type 2 diabetes will be positive.  As often happens, the wisdom of the crowd, led to others joining the share buying frenzy.

Source: Google Finance. Xoma had previously announced on November 4, 2010 (emphasis added) that:

Enrollment completed in Phase 2a trial of XOMA 052 in patients with Type 2 diabetes:

This randomized, placebo-controlled trial, in which 74 patients were enrolled, is designed to evaluate extended biologic activity and safety of XOMA 052. Outcomes will include diabetes measures such as hemoglobin A1c, or HbA1c, and fasting blood glucose, or FBG, and C-reactive protein, or hsCRP, a biomarker of inflammation associated with cardiovascular risk. Interim results from the first three months of treatment in this six month trial are expected to be announced in the first half of January 2011.

Enrollment completed in Phase 2b trial of XOMA 052 in patients with Type 2 diabetes: This randomized, placebo-controlled dose-ranging trial enrolled 420 patients and is designed to further evaluate the safety and efficacy of XOMA 052 dosed once monthly compared to placebo. The results will include data on measurements of HbA1c, FBG and hsCRP. Top line results are expected to be announced in the first quarter of 2011.

Xoma 052 is a high affinity monoclonal antibody that targets the inhibition of IL-1 beta.  Its ultra-high affinity allows for monthly dosing and lower dose levels which supports patient compliance in chronic diseases. Positive phase 2 results for Xoma 052 in Behcet’s Uveitis was presented in November to the American College of Rheumatology.

According to the November 2010 Xoma Corporate Presentation, the overall market size for diabetes is $22B, of which the IL-1 share is $7B, raising the possibility that Xoma 052 could be a blockbuster if shown to be safe and effective.

Source: Xoma November 2010 Corporate Presentation

Looking at the above, perhaps the rush to buy Xoma stock before the holidays, was perhaps not as much of a gamble as one might think. Xoma 052 is certainly a product to watch this year.

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World Intellectual Property Organization LogoIntellectual property (IP) rights are important in the biotechnology industry; one only has to look at a licensing, consulting or service agreement to appreciate this.

If you are a non-lawyer new to the area, and wish to gain a basic understanding of the different types of intellectual property protection such as copyright, trademarks, industrial design, patents and unfair competition, then the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Academy offers a free general course (DL-101).

The course is delivered online, twice a year, over 6 weeks.  If you are a native English speaker, it takes far less time to complete than the 50 hours suggested.  What makes the course work well is you can download the study material as PDF files. These can then be read anywhere – I used my kindle.

An additional benefit, if you have an ego wall in your den or office, is that WIPO send you a certificate after you pass a final exam.  When I lived in the UK, I put all my certificates on the wall in the downstairs toilet,  an idea I “borrowed” from Mrs Thatcher’s eye surgeon when I had dinner at his home. British understatement at its best.

Although the WIPO general course is not focused on biotechnology or the life sciences industry, it does provide a useful overview of international treaties and IP regulation to build upon.  It is worth considering if you are new to the area.

With best wishes for the New Year, may it bring you good health, happiness and prosperity.

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