Vertex Gets FDA Go-Ahead To Sell New Cystic Fibrosis Drug

1/31/12Follow @xconomy

[Updated: 1:25 pm] Vertex Pharmaceuticals is now officially more than just a one-hit wonder.

The Cambridge, MA-based biotech company (NASDAQ: VRTX), best known for its hepatitis C drug, has won clearance from the FDA to start selling a new twice-daily pill called ivacaftor (Kalydeco) for a rare form of cystic fibrosis. The FDA said today the Vertex drug can now be used for patients age six and older who have a gene mutation called G551D. About 1,200 patients in the U.S., or roughly 4 percent of the total population of 30,000 cystic fibrosis patients, have the mutation.

The approval came faster than expected, as Vertex turned in its application in October, and the FDA had a deadline of April 18 to complete its review. The company plans to start shipping the drug to pharmacies this week, the company said.

“Kalydeco is an excellent example of the promise of personalized medicine—targeted drugs that treat patients with a specific genetic makeup,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, in a statement. “The unique and mutually beneficial partnership that led to the approval of Kalydeco serves as a great model for what companies and patient groups can achieve if they collaborate on drug development.”

The new cystic fibrosis drug has been highly anticipated for years, and the application to the FDA is based on clinical trial results that arrived in February. The study of 161 patients found that patients on the Vertex drug had about a 10 percent absolute improvement in their ability to force out air from their lungs in one second—a common measure of success in treating lung disease—compared with those on a placebo. The effect lasted over the entire 48-week course of the study. Researchers also saw significant improvements in reducing cough, sputum production, and the incidence of pulmonary exacerbations. Side effects included headache, upper respiratory tract infections, nasal congestion, rash, and dizziness, although more patients on the placebo group dropped out of the study early because of side effects, Vertex said.

While the 10 percent absolute improvement in breathing ability for people with a deadly lung disease might not sound like much, it is a big step forward for the disease. Cystic fibrosis, the result of mutations to a gene called CFTR, causes the poor transfer of water and salt across cell membranes, which leads to the buildup of thick, sticky mucus in the lungs. That effectively suffocates people over time, and often ends up killing people in their late 30s or early 40s. Doctors currently treat the symptoms of the disease, but Vertex’s drug is the first FDA-approved therapy that works by altering an underlying disease-related protein.

[Updated pricing information] Based on the small patient population that has the G551D mutation, and the significant benefit the drug provides to them, Vertex set the price at $294,000 per patient per year, Nancy Wysenski, Vertex’s chief commercial officer, told analysts today on a conference call. The company estimates that about 60 percent of eligible patients have private health insurance, while the rest are covered by government insurance, Wysenski says. As is common for companies selling high-priced medications, Vertex has established programs to help get the drug to patients who can’t afford it. Vertex said it will provide free medicine to uninsured families with household incomes of less than $150,000 a year, and it will provide assistance in making co-payments for those with insurance.

“We have a strong commitment to help patients 6 and older get Kalydeco,” Wysenski said on the conference call.

The drug was developed as part of a 13-year long collaboration with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which put more than $70 million into the development program, along with Vertex, and the drug’s original developer that was acquired by Vertex-San Diego-based Aurora Biosciences. Because of its support, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation will collect a royalty on Kalydeco sales that will start in the “high-single digit” percentage of sales, and escalate to “just below the teen level” as the drug reaches undisclosed sales milestones, according to Vertex finance chief Ian Smith.

Vertex has a number of plans ongoing to expand the use of Kalydeco beyond this initial small group of patients in the U.S. The company has applied for approval in the European Union, and hopes to receive clearance there to start selling in the third quarter. It is also running a trial of the drug in patients under the age of six; as a treatment for certain other gating mutations of the CFTR gene; and in combination with other medicines that seek to correct additional mutations.

Based on the price and number of patients in the U.S., Vertex can expect peak U.S. sales from the G551D patient population of about $550 million, said analyst Mark Schoenebaum of ISI Group, in a note to clients.

Vertex shares climbed 6 percent t0 $36.90 at 1:45 pm Eastern.

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