Vertex’s Big Day Felt Like Moon Landing, Seattle Researcher Says

2/1/12Follow @xconomy

Bonnie Ramsey said three years ago that a cystic fibrosis drug from Vertex Pharmaceuticals was a huge medical advance in the making, and would end up being an achievement on par with putting a man on the moon, at least for her patients.

Yesterday, she says, was the day it truly felt like she was part of a team that reached the moon-shot goal. The good news came when the FDA approved Vertex’s ivacaftor (Kalydeco) as the first drug of its kind to work by treating an underlying genetic defect for cystic fibrosis.

“It’s a really big day,” says Ramsey, a leading CF physician/scientist at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington. “Even though it’s for a small subpopulation, the treatment paradigm has completely changed. It’s no longer about just treating the symptoms, it’s about treating the genetic defect. That’s a real game-changer.”

The drug from Cambridge, MA-based Vertex (NASDAQ: VRTX) is now FDA approved for patients age six and older who have what’s known as a Class 3 gene mutation called G551D. This mutation is found in about 4 percent of the 30,000 patients in the U.S. with cystic fibrosis. The disease, the result of various 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, and poor absorption of nutrients. It means patients have to endure hours a day of treatment their entire lives, and the median life expectancy is about 39 years. Doctors currently treat the symptoms of the disease, through things like inhalable antibiotics, but Vertex’s drug is the first FDA-approved therapy that works by altering an underlying disease-related protein.

Bonnie Ramsey of Seattle Children's Hospital

Ramsey has had an instrumental role in developing this drug since its infancy. As the executive director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Therapeutic Development Network, back in 2000 she began collaborating with the drug’s original developer, San Diego-based Aurora Biosciences (later acquired by Vertex.)

Ramsey was the lead investigator of a pivotal study of 161 patients, known as Strive, which yielded results in February that laid the foundation for yesterday’s FDA approval. The study showed that patients age 12 and older on the twice-daily pill from Vertex had about a 10.6 percent absolute improvement in their ability to force out air from their lungs in one second—compared with a placebo. The effect held up over the full 48-week course of the study. Researchers also saw significant improvements in being able to gain weight, while also reducing cough, sputum production, and the incidence of pulmonary exacerbations. Side effects included headache, and upper respiratory tract infections, researchers said, although more patients dropped out of the placebo group than the drug group. A second study verified the effect in younger patients, age six and above.

What excites scientists is that the drug has a compelling foundation in biology. It is designed to … Next Page »

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