Biotech Strategy Blog

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

Posts tagged ‘ethics’

The February 2011 issue of Nature Reviews Drug Discovery has an interesting review by Kawai, Mödder and colleagues on “Emerging therapeutic opportunities for skeletal restoration.”

Some of the new products they discuss include:

  1. Parathyroid Hormone-Related protein (PTHRP)
  2. Cathepsin K Inhibitors: odanacatib
  3. Wnt-ß-catenin pathway targets: sclerostin, DKK1 antagonists, lithium.

The market opportunity for osteoporosis remains significant, affecting 44 million people in the United States over the age of 50, resulting in healthcare costs in excess of $15 billion a year; numbers that are set to increase with the ageing population of baby boomers.  The low bone mineral density (BMD) associated with osteoporosis results in increased risk of hip fracture, from which the mortality rate is 20-30% in the first year.

The current competitive landscape for osteoporosis includes antiresorptive agents such as the bisphosponates (alendronate, risedronate, ibandronate, zoledronic acid) that inhibit bone resorption.  These compounds reduce fracture-risk by 20-30%, but long-term safety issues remain a concern.  High doses of zoledronic acid (Zometa) has been linked to osteonecrosis of the jaw (see previous blog post).

Amgen’s new monoclonal antibody, denosumab, binds to RANK-L, thereby inhibiting its action, with the result that osteoclasts (the cells responsible for bone resorption) cannot form, function or survive.  The result of this mechanism of action is a reduction in bone loss and bone destruction.

Like zoledronic acid, denosumab also has a risk of osteonecrosis of the jaw developing.  However, one additional long-term safety issue for denosumab is the fact it suppresses TRAIL (tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand) that is not only produced by osteoblasts (the cells responsible for bone formation), but also by immune cells.  This raises the possibility of skin and immune adverse events, which were seen in the clinical trial data.

Kawai & Mödder in their review article conclude that:

“There is still a need for therapies that reduce fracture risk beyond the level achievable with bone-resorbing agents, particularly as virtually all of the currently available drugs do not eliminate the possibility of future fractures.”

However in addition to having a market opportunity and scientific rationale, any biotechnology company looking at osteoporosis as part of their marketing strategy, must face up to the increasing ethical concerns over placebo-controlled clinical trials.  This topic was highlighted last year in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In the future there is likely to be increased pressure not to recruit subjects at high-risk of osteoporosis (T score less than -2.5) into placebo-controlled trials, thus increasing the costs, number of patients and time to bring new products to market.  In addition, the regulatory barriers to entry are becoming higher, given that regulatory agencies require a reduction in fractures over 3 years to establish the efficacy of a new drug.  This ultimately results in the need for large, expensive, and long phase III clinical trials.

In forthcoming posts, I will discuss the opportunities for market entry by new osteoporosis drugs targeting the Wnt- ß-catenin pathway, Cathepsin K inhibitors and Parathyroid hormone-related protein.

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I was supposed to be at the Innovation in Healthcare Symposium today at MIT in Cambridge, MA, but the winter ice storm that’s set to hit the North East has forced me to change my plans and return early from Boston to New Jersey. I am hoping to outrun the storm this morning (unlikely I know).

Hopefully, the presentations will be videoed and uploaded to You Tube or Webcast. Having traveled to Boston specially, I’m disappointed not to be able to write about the Symposium as planned.

A hot topic that came to my attention courtesy of an article in the Irish Medical Times, is how companies are handling incidental findings in the medical images they obtain during clinical trials.  To me, this is the flipside of innovation in that it often yields both positive and negative consequences.

Innovative medical imaging such as positron emission tomography (PET), Optical Coherance Tomography (OCT) and Dynamic Contrast-Enhanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging (DCE-MRI) are now widely used in clinical trials, and have opened the door to new ways to visualize joints, blood vessels, organs and tumors.  This innovation is leading to the development of imaging biomarkers such as reduction in joint space or reduction in tumor size that became surrogates for drug efficacy.

However, in the process, these clinical trial medical images are generating “incidental findings” (IF).  An incidental finding is something that shows up in a medical image obtained during a clinical trial, but is not related to the clinical trial protocol or study objectives.  The challenges is that what the reviewing radiologist sees may impact the health of the subject, making it an ethical issue not only for the reviewer, but for investigators and sponsors such as biotechnology companies.  How companies handle incidental findings in clinical trial imaging is a hot topic at the moment.

Part of the debate is to whether this is something that companies should worry about, given that we are talking about may be a relatively low incidence.  A September 2010 paper from Fletcher et al, “Incidental Findings in Imaging Research,” published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, reported that 39.8% (n=567) of 1426 research medical images showed an incidental finding. Of these, in only 6.2% was clinical action taken upon the IF and in only 1.1% (n=6) was there resulting clinical benefit to the patient.  This raises the questions of to what extent there is an obligation to report findings, who pays for this, and whether it is ethically necessary?

The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NBIB) has published recommendations, that states researchers should anticipate incidental findings and have a policy to deal with them.

If I were a biotechnology company looking to hire a Contract Research Organization (CRO) or other outsourcing company for central review of clinical trial images, one of the questions that I would ask is what is their policy for handling incidental findings?

While innovation in medical imaging provides new ways of measuring and detecting disease, this innovation also generates unanticipated data that has to be addressed.

I recently attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH) in Orlando so thought I would share my general impressions (in no particular order):

Convention Center Food was Poor:

The food at the Orange County Convention Center reminded me of an airport – desperate choices, poor quality and overpriced.  As for no Starbucks or decent coffee shop, civilization has yet to reach Orlando! The Peabody hotel across the road had coffee shops that offered a $3 single espresso shot, but they ran out of pods on the Monday morning – faced with the overwhelming demand that seems to have not been anticipated!  Memo to Starbucks – look into a convention center franchise.

Cramming all the science in one day doesn’t work:

People go to a meeting such as ASH for many reasons – networking, business development, education, investigator meetings, but in the end, it is a scientific meeting.  The meeting ran from Saturday to Tuesday, yet nearly all the oral scientific program (biology and therapy) was crammed into one day of simultaneous sessions on the Monday – tough if you wanted to cover a product or pathway that targeted multiple therapeutic areas, many of which ran at the same time.

The Poster hall was like a graveyard:

You can tell I didn’t think this was a great meeting. Every time I went into the aircraft like hangar where the posters were housed, I ended up chilled to the bone. It certainly didn’t encourage spending much time there, and I was disappointed that a surprisingly high number of presenters did not attend the poster presentation receptions, when they were supposed to be available to answer questions.  Nobody seemed to check if anybody showed up, to me the whole point of a poster is being able to discuss it.

Why not publish the slides from the oral science presentations?

ASH, unlike ASCO does not make the slides of oral scientific presentations available online, so if you didn’t make notes, or break the rules (and risk being ejected) by taking an illegal picture on your phone or camera, then you missed it.  Abstracts are often submitted months in advance before the final data is analyzed, so by not making the slides available after the meeting, science to me is being hampered especially given the overlap of sessions on the Monday.  If an abstract is presented and published, the scientific information should be available to be shared. Isn’t that what science is about?  ASCO have it right, their virtual meeting program is outstanding.

Hospitality lives on – but only if you are an international doctor:

US doctors attending their annual meeting, are warned not to accept a free cup of coffee at an exhibitor booth if their state or employer prohibits the acceptance of such “gifts”, while foreign physician attendees are wined and dined.  You see signs for hospitality centers for European doctors or desks in hotels for company sponsored groups of foreign doctors – hard to believe there’s ethically not something wrong with these double standards.

A lack of quality educational materials:

While the free pen and notepad have long since gone the way of the dinosaur, this year there was noticeably fewer educational material to take away.  The debate as to whether doctors should pay for their own CME continues, but I do think many in the industry miss the opportunity by not providing educational material on the science, pathways and mechanism of action of new products.

The “Super Friday” is still alive:

Multiple industry sponsored satellite symposia (AKA “Super Friday” sessions) took place before ASH, with several at the Peabody Hotel. I have to say the food at the one I attended on personalized medicine was excellent, one of my best meals in Orlando.  They are not cheap to run: not only do 800-1000 people get fed, but a hotel room with audio-visual equipment has to be hired, a panel of experts are paid to talk about a topic, and many of the attendees come away with a glossy brochure.  Could this money be better spent elsewhere?  ASH has a large education component to it, and it was interesting to note that what the ASH education program committee chose as important topics to talk about and what the industry chose, were pretty different.  That is perhaps not surprising – after all if you choose the topic of the satellite symposia and it’s of relevance to your product, indirectly you are trying to influence prescribing behavior, otherwise why else would you fund it?  There is no such thing as a free lunch or dinner.

Multiple Myeloma was a hot topic:

There was a lot of interest in clinical trial results in MM.  The use of a maintenance therapy, and attempt to turn this into a chronic disease was a widely discussed topic, however many old drugs such as thalidomide have nasty side effect profiles such as peripheral neuropathy, while newer drugs such as lenalidomide are expensive but appear to only incrementally increase survival.  Results from multiple combinations of drugs and induction therapies were presented, I was left with the impression that although there is progress, there is still no major breakthrough in this disease area.

Nobody wants to talk about cost effectiveness:

The 800 lb gorilla in the room for hematology/oncology is the comparative effectiveness of one treatment versus another i.e. it’s cost/benefit, yet nobody wants to talk about it.  Take for example the treatment of CML, should you treat with imatinib (Gleevec) which has outstanding long-term survival data over several years thanks to the IRIS trial, or use a second-generation tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) such as dasatinib or nilotinib that is around twice the price, more potent and slightly more effective but obviously we don’t yet know if it improves 5 or 10 year survival yet over imatinib.  Nobody wanted to talk about price – physicians currently live in an ivory tower.

If you are interested in information on what the hot scientific news was at ASH, then I encourage you to look at the excellent posts (here & here) published by my colleague on Pharma Strategy Blog.

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