Merck to Spin Off Company That Will Include Its Biosimilar Marketing in 2021

On February 5, Merck announced that it will create a new spinoff that will include its biosimilar business with Samsung Bioepis as well as its legacy pharmaceuticals (e.g., Zetia®, Vytorin®, and other widely diversified brands). In its press release, Merck emphasized that the as-yet unnamed new company will also have a strong focus on women’s health.

Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier

Merck has an agreement with Samsung Bioepis to market the latter’s infliximab biosimilar Renflexis®, trastuzumab biosimilar Ontruzant®, and its etanercept biosimilar Brenzys®, which is available outside the US only.

This new firm will take the lessons learned from its commercialization experience with Samsung Bioepis to help it expand: The Merck spinoff will “pursue opportunities to partner with biopharmaceutical innovators looking to commercialize their products by leveraging [the new company’s] scale and presence in fast-growing international markets.” Merck expects that 75% of the revenues of the spinoff will come from the global markets.

The three Merck biosimilars reached global sales of $300 million, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Interestingly, Merck earned $411 million in 2019 from sales of Remicade in the EU (which it markets as part of an agreement with Johnson & Johnson). This is down from $582 million for the previous year. Our call to Merck regarding whether Remicade marketing will be under the new entity was not immediately returned.

According to Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Kenneth C. Frazier, this move will allow the parent company to focus its “key pillars of oncology, vaccines, hospital. and animal health,” including its highly profitable Keytruda® cancer brand and innovative research and development. Once the new organization is created in the first half of 2021, it will be based in New Jersey.

“Over the past several years, we have purposefully shifted the focus of our efforts and resources to our best opportunities for growth.” Mr. Frazier continued, “Given the opportunities now in front of us, we believe we can benefit from even greater focus.”

Who Are the Key Lucentis Biosimilar Players to Watch?

Roche’s reference product Lucentis® (ranibizumab) seems to be the next likely target for biosimilar competition. Sales of the drug in the US were last reported to be $1.5 billion in 2017, but Roche’s revenues from Lucentis are expected to slip, owing to competition from Eylea® (aflibercept) primarily and some newer agents. And new Lucentis biosimilars will hasten that decline.

ranibizumab biosimilars

Ranibizumab is approved for use for several ophthalmologic indications, including wet age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular edema, myopic choroidal neovascularization, and macular edema following retinal vein occlusion.

According to reporting by the UK-based Generics and Biosimilar Initiative (GaBI), the patents on Lucentis will expire in the US in June 2020 and in Europe in 2022. GaBI had found some 10 organizations or partnerships working on investigational ranibizumab biosimilars, but little updated information (some were reported as early as 2015).

Today, our research into the Lucentis biosimilar space revealed just a couple of active players, but with rapidly advancing plans. Here are the three initiatives reported publicly:

1. Coherus-Bioeq

This one is a little complex—stick with it, as it could be the first to obtain FDA approval, as early as later this year.

Formycon AG, a German manufacturer, gave Bioeq IP AG exclusive global commercialization rights to FYB201, Formycon’s ranibizumab biosimilar. In November 2019, with Formycon’s assent, Bioeq signed an agreement with Coherus Biosciences to commercialize the biosimilar in the US.

At the recent JP Morgan investor conference, Coherus President Denny Lanfear disclosed that Bioeq filed for FDA approval in December 2019. Coherus is expecting FDA acceptance of the application shortly, and a fourth quarter 2020 decision. This could set up a product launch, according to Coherus, in 2021.

Interestingly, Coherus originally had a different biosimilar ranibizumab in its own pipeline. This agent, CHS-3351, fell by the wayside a couple of years ago. The deal with Bioeq seems to have created a new ranibizumab opportunity for Coherus.

2. Xbrane-Stada Arzneimittel

Sweden-based Xbrane signed an agreement with the German generics manufacturer Stada Arzneimittel to co-develop Xbrane’s Lucentis biosimilar. This agent, currently dubbed Xlucane™, is being tested in a phase 3 trial involving 580 patients with age-related macular degeneration, which is slated for completion in February 2021 (interim results available in May 2020).

3. Biogen-Samsung Bioepis

Samsung Bioepis completed its phase 3 trial of SB11 in December 2019 (primary completion date of May 2019). This trial comprised 705 patients with neovascular age-related macular degeneration. SB11 seems poised to be submitted for approval via the 351(k) biosimilar pathway, and Samsung’s deal with Biogen (already a part owner of the joint venture with Samsung Biologics) for commercialization. Therefore, Biogen will take the marketing reins once an FDA decision has been given. If Samsung submits its filing in Q2 2020, a launch could be possible in Q2 2021, assuming a positive decision.

Are There Any Other Active Players Out There?

The development of PF582 by Pfenex has been on hold since 2018, after the company was handed back the full rights to the agent by former partner Hospira. Pfenex no longer lists this product (or any other biosimilar for that matter) on its pipeline. The drug had progressed through phase 1/2 studies, but has not advanced.

None of the other significant players in the biosimilar industry (including Pfizer, Sandoz, Mylan, Amgen, Celltrion, or Biocon) have publicly announced a ranibizumab biosimilar program at present.

Samsung Bioepis Enters the Fray With Its Avastin Biosimilar BLA

On November 19, Samsung Bioepis announced that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had accepted its 351(k) application for its bevacizumab biosimilar SB8. This would be the company’s second biosimilar submission for treating cancer.

Samsung’s trastuzumab biosimilar was approved early in 2019, and it awaits marketing in a crowded market. SB8 would compete with the reference product Avastin® and two approved biosimilars (so far).

The biologic licensing application is supported by a phase 3 clinical trial of the agent in nonsquamous non–small cell lung cancer, in which patients received either the biosimilar or reference product in addition to paclitaxel and carboplatin. The trial resulted in no clinically relevant outcomes differences between patient groups.

If approved, SB8 would be marketed by Merck in the US. An FDA decision is expected in Q4 2020.

The Biosimilar Mabs Have It: FDA Approves Biosimilars for Adalimumab and Rituxumab

In a busy beginning of the week, the US Food and Drug Administration approved new biosimilars for Humira®and Rituxan®. Samsung Bioepis gained approval for Hadlima™ (adalimumab-bwwd), and Pfizer scored with Ruxience™ (rituximab-pvvr).

HADLIMA

The approval for Hadlima covers the following indications:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Crohn’s disease in adults
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Plaque psoriasis

Formerly known as SB5, Samsung Bioepis secured Hadlima’s approval on the basis of phase 1 and phase 3 studies in rheumatoid arthritis. The phase 3 investigation included over 500 patients, finding ACR20 responses to be equivalent to that of Humira (at 72%). Immunogenicity profiles for the two agents were also similar through 52 weeks of a switching study.

According to its licensing agreement with Abbvie, manufacturer of Humira, Samsung will not be able to market this agent until end of June 2023. This agent joins Samsung’s two other approved anti-TNF biosimilars, Renflexis (infliximab) and Eticovo (etanercept). Only Renflexis is currently marketed in the US.

RUXIENCE

Pfizer’s newest biosimilar entry, Ruxience, has been approved for a subset of indications of reference product Rituxan, including:

  • Treatment of adult patients with relapsed or refractory, low-grade or  follicular B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma who are CD20-positive and have failed prior treatments
  • Patients who have nonprogressing, low-grade, CD20-positive B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and who are stable after receiving a prior chemotherapy regimen containing cyclophosphamide, vincristine and prednisone
  • Patients with CD20-positive follicular lymphoma who are therapy naïve in combination with chemotherapy or who had responded to previous rituximab therapy
  • Patients with CD20-positive chronic lymphocytic leukemia in combination with fludarabine and cyclophosphamide
  • Granulomatosis with polyangiitis in adult patients in combination with glucocorticoids

The biosimilar does not include Rituxan’s labeled indication for rheumatoid arthritis, similar to the other approved rituximab biosimilar.

The application for Ruxience included the results of the phase 3 clinical trial (REFLECTIONS), which included 394 patients with follicular lymphoma. Compared with the EU-licensed version of rituximab (MabThera®), Ruxience was found to provide equivalent clinical and safety outcomes.

Originally designated PF-05280586, Pfizer has not disclosed when Ruxience will be available. Pfizer signed a settlement with Roche (Genentech) over litigation for a key Rituxan patent, but terms of this agreement were not disclosed. The other FDA-approved biosimilar competitor in this space, Celltrion’s Truxima®, is similarly awaiting launch.

Samsung Bioepis Signals a Settlement With Genentech on Herceptin Biosimilar

And then there was one. Samsung Bioepis and Genentech filed a motion in District Court to drop all pending patent litigation regarding Ontruzant®, an approved Herceptin® biosimilar. A Joint Stipulation of Dismissal is usually the confirmation that a licensing agreement has been reached.

This leaves one remaining approved trastuzumab biosimilar maker that has not settled with Genentech (a subsidiary of Roche). Amgen’s product Kanjinti®, which was the last trastuzumab biosimilar approved (in June), is the last of 5 approved agents that is not yet subject to a Genentech agreement. The other manufacturers, Mylan/Biocon, Teva/Celltrion, Pfizer, and now Samsung Bioepis, will likely pay a royalty to Genentech whenever their products are launched.

Launch dates have not been announced (nor have the terms of these agreements) for any Herceptin biosimilar. However, the principal patent for Herceptin® has expired, so biosimilar competition should be available before the end of the year.

In other biosimilar news…Coherus Biosciences announced that it has manufactured its 400,000th dose of its pegfilgrastim biosimilar Udenyca®. Additionally, its unaudited second quarter earnings seem to indicate positive movement, as much as $84 million (more than doubling first-quarter earnings of $37 million).

Don’t Expect All-Out Biosimilar Competition for Herceptin—Just Yet

Five trastuzumab biosimilars have been approved for marketing in the US, and the composition-of-matter patent for the reference product, Herceptin®, expires June 30, 2019. That doesn’t mean we’ll see a jail break of competition, like that seen in the EU last October with adalimumab’s patent expiration. Yet there has been heavy interest in capturing a slice of Herceptin’s $2.9 billion US sales (in 2018).

Three manufacturers have signed licensing agreements with Genentech (subsidiary of Roche). In March 2017, Mylan signed the first agreement for its product Ogivri®. Its marketing partner is Biocon. In December 2018, Pfizer followed suit for its recently approved agent Trazimera®. None of the parties have indicated when a biosimilar agent will be launched. At the end of December, Celltrion and Teva came to a similar agreement on its Herzuma® biosimilar.

Herceptin patent litigation

According to Goodwin’s Big Molecule Watch, Roche’s infringement claims against Samsung Bioepis (Ontrusant®) and Amgen/Allergan (Kanjinti®) are still being litigated. For Genentech v. Samsung, the bench trial is slated to begin December 9, 2019. In addition, Samsung Bioepis is appealing the Patent Trial and Appeals Board ruling regarding the validity of Herceptin’s method of use patents. Separately, Genentech is challenging the PTAB’s decision that two other Herceptin patents were invalid. There’s a whole lot here that needs to be resolved (or settled).

In the case of Amgen and Allergan, Genentech originally brought suit claiming 38 patents were infringed (in June 2018). In July 2018, Genentech reduced this figure to less than half (17). A month later, Amgen responded to the suit. Little information is available on timing of next steps.

Based on this information, it is difficult to know just when the first trastuzumab biosimilars will be launched. If Genentech followed Abbvie’s example in its 2023 sequencing of adalimumab biosimilars, one might expect Mylan’s product to be available first, perhaps as early as this summer, with Pfizer’s and Celltrion to follow perhaps six months later.

Yet, unlike the Abbvie agreements, none of the Genentech licensing settlements were made public (other than the actual dates of the agreement). Keep in mind, Herceptin was first approved by the FDA in October 1998. In 2018, the drug’s sales in the US and EU combined was over $4.7 billion. Is 21 years of market exclusivity to anyone’s benefit, other than the manufacturer? Since 2006, US drug sales of Herceptin have been greater than $1 billion annually. If the biosimilar launches do not occur shortly, this may be a good test case of the Federal Trade Commission’s commitment to clearing patents in the name of competition.

Second Etanercept Biosimilar Receives FDA Approval

Samsung Bioepis scored another biosimilar approval in the US, as the Food and Drug Administration gave its nod to etanercept-ykro on April 25, 2019. Formerly known as SB4, Samsung Bioepis dubbed this agent Eticovo™. It is the second
Enbrel® biosimilar to to receive US approval.
 
This approval covered all of the reference product’s autoimmune indications, including ankylosing spondylitis, polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, plaque psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Clinical studies were performed in patients with moderate-to-severe rheumatoid arthritis, finding that in combination with methotrexate, Eticovo achieved ACR20 scores that were equivalent to that of Enbrel by week 24 (78.1% vs. 80.3%, respectively). Safety and immunogenicity were also comparable with those of the reference agent.

Eticovo has been approved in the EU and Canada, in addition to other parts of the world, under the brand names Benepali and Brenzys. Samsung Bioepis has not announced a launch date in the US for its biosimilar, and this can be delayed for quite some time. Sandoz’s Erelzi® was approved in 2016, but has not yet reached the market because of patent litigation. Amgen, which manufacturers Enbrel, believes its patents extend effectively into 2028, which would provide for nearly 30 years of product exclusivity.


Both Coherus and Lupin have investigational etanercept biosimilars that are in phase 3 trials. Neither has publicly filed for FDA approval to date.

Does Mass Signing of Adalimumab Licensing Deals Add Up to Biosimilar Access Collusion?

As reported by the Center for Biosimilars, a union has filed a class-action lawsuit against AbbVie and the eight prospective biosimilar adalimumab makers who agreed to delay bringing their agents to market through a royalty arrangement.

Only Boehringer Ingelheim remains as a biosimilar maker who has an approved version of adalimumab but who has not signed on with AbbVie. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 has filed the suit with the other manufacturers and AbbVie, claiming that by their actions, they are trying to “divide the market for adalimumab between Europe and the United States,” according to the Center for Biosimilars report.

This is an interesting question. The individual motivations of the first companies to come to agreement with AbbVie (Amgen, then Samsung Bioepis) included an end to interminable patent legislation in the US. They wanted the ability to immediately plan launches in Europe (starting in October 2018). The motivations of most other subsequent signees almost certainly was to not forfeit marketshare in Europe, which was needed to help sustain biosimilar development efforts for the US market. In fact, many of these prospective US manufacturers already had received approval in the EU.

AbbVie’s principal patents on Humira® expired in Europe in October 2018. The last of the principal patents are supposed to expire around 2023 in the US anyway. Was it necessary to arrange serial US launches as demonstrated in this link? Would patent litigation have continued well past the supposed patent expiration date? Knowing AbbVie, this is likely. Their several patents involving adalimumab use to treat individual diseases would provide AbbVie a basis for forging ahead with lawsuits that would have gained them additional billions of dollars in sales while the suits meandered toward conclusion.

Does this mean that access to Humira is accelerated through the signing of the royalty agreements, rather than delayed through acts of collusion? That is difficult to say. Although should the lone holdout—Boehringer Ingelheim—decide that it makes business sense to launch at risk, it could topple the carefully orchestrated structure of the agreements. Amgen believes that it will launch the first adalimumab biosimilar, and experience a few months of exclusivity in the US. At that point, Amgen (and every subsequent adalimumab biosimilar maker) would have to decide whether (1) to do the same or risk losing its advantage, (2) start working towards marketing plan B, or (3) cede the initial marketshare and its billions in revenue and wait it out. If Boehringer obtains its sought after interchangeability designation, that may well speed up the process.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that these individual acts represent premeditated collusion; although the resulting lack of access to the many biosimilar versions may look to others as an orchestrated maneuver.

Samsung Bioepis Scores FDA Approval of Ontruzant, the Third Biosimilar Trastuzumab

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on January 18, 2019 the approval of a new biosimilar version of trastuzumab. Produced by Samsung Bioepis, this agent was dubbed Ontruzant (trastuzumab-dttb).

This is the third trastuzumab biosimilar approved by the FDA, following those by Mylan and Biocon in December 2017 (Ogivri®) and Teva and Celltrion last month (Herzuma®). As with biosimilars other than Herzuma and the reference biologic Herceptin®, this agent is approved for use in the treatment of HER2-overexpressing breast cancer and the treatment of HER2-overexpressing metastatic gastric or gastroesophageal junction adenocarcinoma. Herzuma is not approved for the latter indication.

As with Renflexis®, Samsung Bioepis’ first FDA-approved biosimilar, Merck will market the product in the US when launched. No launch date has yet been revealed.

Mylan and Biocon had signed a licensing agreement with Roche, the manufacturer of Herceptin, which ended their patent fight, but which delayed launch. Teva and Celltrion have not yet disclosed whether a similar deal has been reached with Roche. Pfizer has an investigational trastuzumab biosimilar, and they too have signed a licensing agreement with Roche.

Will the Government Shutdown Slow Biosimilar Approvals?

The partial federal government shutdown is having specific effects in various important areas of government, but it may not be particularly troubling for FDA user-fee funded activities.

Scott Gottlieb, MD, Commissioner of the FDA, has been especially busy on Twitter, trying to inform the public how the government shut down is affecting FDA operations. He made it clear that the agency is prioritizing its efforts on ensuring consumer safety.

During an extended tweet storm (the past 7 days), he has not directly addressed the effect of the shutdown on current drug approvals. However, since the pharmaceutical companies have paid into the drug approval activities of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Review, there may be sufficient funds and resources for ongoing approval activities. In a tweet last week, Dr. Gottlieb mentioned that FDA was bringing onto staff several new user-fee funded staffers. Yet, in a January 7 tweet, he promised additional information on how the shutdown would affect biosimilars; this has not yet been addressed.

In terms of biosimilars, two trastuzumab drug makers are expecting FDA decisions this quarter (Pfizer and Samsung Bioepis). However, Pfizer’s biosimilar launch is subject to a licensing agreement with Genentech (Roche), the maker of the reference product Herceptin®. Therefore, if there was a short delay in FDA approval, it will not likely have a material effect on availability for prescription. We anticipate that Pfizer will also be hearing from the FDA on its rituximab biosimilar in the second quarter.

This could raise a secondary problem with the shutdown: Will the current furlough cause a chain reaction of delays in the evaluation of existing biologic licensing applications? How long might it take the full FDA staff to catch up, if that is the case?

In a January 13 tweet, Dr. Gottlieb said, “The lapse in funding represents one of the most significant operational challenges in FDA’s recent history. But as an agency, we’re committed to fulfilling our consumer protection mandate, to the best of our abilities, under our current configuration.”

In other biosimilar news… A January 10 story in The Pink Sheet reported that Leah Christl, PhD, Associate Director of Therapeutic Biologics at FDA intends to depart the agency in the near future (a specific date was not given).