Drug development becomes even more complex as time passes. Increased regulation, new scientific methods, coupling of drugs with biomarkers, and an attempt to build drugs for much more specific populations – even individuals – all make clinical development more expensive and time-consuming. But the pressure is also constantly increasing to develop new, innovative medicines faster. So companies invest more dollars, with steadily decreasing yields in terms of such drugs on the market.
"Collaborations are in many cases the only possible solution--a powerful force driving old and new models."
The traditional models for clinical development are thus not producing the best results. Can collaboration between companies, academic institutions, and public (government and non-profit) organizations help solve the problem?
Collaboration has in fact yielded important developments in diagnostic and therapeutic products. However, truly collaborative efforts are in the minority. Particularly for biotech, diagnostic, device and pharmaceutical companies with stock traded on the public markets, or with funding from venture capital, private equity, or other investment-oriented platforms, there are strong drivers for limiting collaboration.
Particularly onerous are intellectual property (IP) concerns. Patent attorneys are normally terrified of collaborations, where the ownership of IP may be explicitly or implicitly impaired. Investment banks and fund managers are very nervous about modeling financial returns on new products where IP is shared. Development companies often have overt or implied policies greatly favoring internal development over collaboration. It could be argued that the greatest motivation behind the huge product in-licensing game is the desire to fully own product rights rather than to continue collaborations where the rights are not exclusive.
Bu the good news is that long-standing models and newer innovations in collaboration do work. Some examples are worth exploring. A huge influence currently on collaboration models across the spectrum is the revolution in immuno-oncology. More cash has gone into the development of drugs which enlist the immune system to attack cancer than any other field of drug development in history, some estimate by a factor of three. The great majority of current human clinical trials in the U.S. are in this field. There are over 200 separate drugs in development that attack a single target, PD-1--completely unprecedented. Due to the vast complexity of the human immune system, and also to the great promise that these drugs have shown in previously intractable cancers, the field has recognized that these drugs can only perform to full potential when used in combination. But the rationale for combinations is very obtuse, there are huge numbers of new drug targets and candidates, and there are many hundreds of institutions and companies involved in development of these combinations. Thus, collaborations are in many cases the only possible solution--a powerful force driving old and new models.
"As drugs have become more expensive, a huge drive has emerged, spurred by the brokers of health care, to limit the populations eligible to be prescribed an expensive new drug."
As marketing and reimbursement become increasingly complex, large commercial companies share the marketing of more products. Almost every large pharmaceutical and biotech company has products which are jointly sold with others.
Some pharmaceutical companies do a creditable job, often driven by ethical rather than economic concerns, of identifying drugs in their commercial or development portfolios which would be best in the hands of others, or which should be combined with products owned by others to achieve maximum patient benefit. Pfizer, for example, has a strong internal culture of not allowing products to become "dormant" in its hands, and actively seeks to collaboratively develop or license out such products.
Particularly in the immuno-oncology field, given the lack of firm knowledge about which combinations will work best in patients, both large and small companies are collaborating on both preclinical and clinical development. Merck, with its drug Keytruda, the leading anti-PD-1, has almost 1000 collaborative trials in progress. In most cases, the IP rights to a successful combination are not specified up-front; the desire is to see what works and deal with the rights and financial issues later.
Other companies have specifically engaged non-profit foundations and/or public bodies in collaborative efforts. This is of course not new--there is a very long history of pharmaceutical, diagnostic, and device companies either collaborating with the NIH or disease-focused foundations for development of products born from institutional research. The reverse is also true--both the NIH and foundations are often engaged to collaborate on development of products owned by industry. Sometimes these collaborations can be relatively complex. For example, Astra-Zeneca, Sloan Kettering, the Cancer Research Institute, and the National Cancer institute have engaged in a partnership to conduct clinical trials on combination cancer therapies involving the portfolio owned by Astra-Zeneca in combination with drugs owned by others, with device therapies and procedures, and with diagnostic products.
As drugs have become more expensive, a huge drive has emerged, spurred by the brokers of health care--the so-called 'insurance' companies and pharmaceutical benefit managers--to limit the populations eligible to be prescribed an expensive new drug. Thus, the field of "companion diagnostics" has crystallized. In a number of fields, including cardiology, urology, neurodegenerative disease, and oncology, developers of diagnostics and drugs seek each other out to jointly develop drug/diagnostic pairs which appropriately select patients for treatment. The number of such collaborations is escalating dramatically, although many large pharmaceutical companies have their own in-house programs.
"The lack of clinical trial data sharing has engendered some notable collaborative efforts."
But most large pharmaceutical companies are not in the business of selling diagnostic products, even if those products are so closely linked to a specific drug that they are included in the FDA-approved 'label' of that drug. As a result, some very collaborative relationships are emerging. Merck, which has a very large and active companion diagnostics development group, almost always seeks development and commercialization partners for internally innovated diagnostics – to the extent that the company actually gives away the rights and the commercial benefits of the diagnostic product. Such was the case with the Merck-developed Tau imaging agents related to Alzheimer's disease, which Merck made available without license to the entire industry. The company continues to drive such non-financial collaborations in other clinical disciplines.
Collaborations certainly take place between academic centers, but in comparison to others, they are few and of far less productive outcome. Many appear to be innovative and have great potential, but the results are often different. The collaboration between medical schools and research institutions in Northeast Ohio seems promising, but it is in large part just a means for gathering hard-to-find clinical trial patients into the giant local institutions, Case Western and the Cleveland Clinic. And the actual output of academic versus commercial development programs is usually poor. One new company recently did an exhaustive search for new clinical drug development candidates in a specific therapeutic area in academia and came up empty-handed, only to find a solid handful of candidate drugs "hiding" in pharmaceutical companies that they were willing to provide collaboratively or to license.
The lack of clinical trial data sharing has engendered some notable collaborative efforts. The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy initially set out to promulgate standards for clinical trial data collection to make trial results in the thousands of combination trials more comparable. However, after some initial frustration, they are now working collaboratively with biotech companies, academia, and pharmaceutical companies to drive forward specific combination trials that experts believe should be done.
Foundations and public organizations also enable or initiate collaborative research. The Prostate Cancer Foundation has aggressively put academic and hospital-based research institutions together with industry to push the development of new effective therapies and diagnostics for prostate cancer, with remarkable success. The Veterans Administration has recently embarked on an aggressive program of collaborations with industry (with the help of funding from the Prostate Cancer Foundation) to allow use of the VA population and the very complete patient records to start clinical trials and other development efforts that would otherwise be very difficult.
"The near future will bring some surprising collaborative successes in the development of new drugs, devices, and diagnostics, but of course, some serious disappointments as well."
Finally, the financial industry at times facilitates collaborations, although they are usually narrow. Fund managers often get two or more of their portfolio companies to pool assets and/or IP to push forward more rapid development, or to provide structure for developments that otherwise could not go forward due to size or other resource limitations. For example, Orbimed, a health-care-focused investment firm, consistently drives cross-company development efforts within its large portfolio of drug and device companies.
So collaborative efforts are very much alive and well, which is great news for patients. Current realities in science, politics, reimbursement, and finance are driving diversity in collaborative arrangements. The near future will bring some surprising collaborative successes in the development of new drugs, devices, and diagnostics, but of course, some serious disappointments as well. And the very negative influence of the IP profession on collaborations will not be soon defeated.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby