Author: Marc Herant

Recon takes an analytical look behind select developments in healthcare

Summer catch-up: an opinionated take on NEJM highlights for May-July 2021

Cancer and mutational complexity Probably the biggest news in cancer treatment this year is the approval of sotorasib (Lumkras, Amgen) which received accelerated approval in lung cancer with mutated KRAS (G12C) and has potential for use in other cancers (see here). Mirati is hot on the trail with adagrasib, but unusually for a drug in the approval process, their paper in the NEJM is a deep dive into the mechanisms of resistance to KRAS G12C inhibition that lead to treatment failure. They present very detailed in vitro studies in which

Read More and AI-related studies: a brief status check in April 2021

Healthcare is by nature conservative; despite a huge level of interest for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) techniques, significant penetration in standard workflows of care will depend on demonstrations of safety and efficacy. As a result, it is today’s pipeline of clinical studies using AI/ML that will determine mainstream usage tomorrow.  In order to better understand this pipeline, we have mined for characteristics and trends of registered studies making use of AI/ML. Unsurprisingly we see strong growth, but starting from a very small baseline. Although most of

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Remodel, rewire, repopulate: an opinionated take on NEJM highlights for April 2021

Remodeling to health? Chronic disease progression is often due to a maladaptive tissue response which leads to remodeling – such as cardiac hypertrophy with hypertension.  While most therapeutics focus on tamping down the injury, sotatercept (Acceleron Pharma) in pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) breaks new ground by focusing on the remodeling. This modulator of the TGF-beta superfamily looks to inhibit the remodeling of the pulmonary vasculature that worsens the PAH over time, and eventually leads to the demise of most patients. In a 24-week placebo-controlled phase 2 trial (N=106), the pulmonary

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Balancing the humors: an opinionated take on NEJM highlights for March 2021

A new approach to schizophrenia Antipsychotic agents treat schizophrenia by manipulating the dopaminergic system. While they are effective at treating psychosis, they can have major side effects and they lack the ability to address so called negative symptoms e.g. apathy, lack of social connection, poverty of thought.  Enter the muscarinic cholinergic system which is tricky to manipulate in the CNS without untoward systemic effects as Lilly found out with their M1/4 agonist xanomeline.  Karuna Therapeutics has now licensed the molecule and cleverly combined with it with trospium, an antagonist with

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All immunity: an opinionated take on NEJM highlights for February 2021

We can cure Hep C but not immunize against it Sovaldi and other drugs have made curing chronic Hepatitis C a routine, if expensive, proposition. Still, given how common Hep C infection is, and how it can irreversibly damage the liver without overt signs, a vaccine would be highly valuable. Unfortunately, an NIH sponsored trial with a GSK vaccine in 548 IV drug users at high risk of contracting the disease failed to show any protection: 28 participants developed chronic Hep C evenly divided between the placebo and treatment groups. 

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While we wait for our shot(s); an opinionated take on NEJM highlights for January 2021

Incremental progress in the fight to treat heart failure After a decade or more of relative quiescence in the 2000s, a volley of new therapies have come to the forefront in the pages of the NEJM: sacubitril valsartan (2014 – Novartis’ Entresto), various SGLT2 inhibitors such as dapagliflozin (2019, AstraZeneca’s Farxiga), vericiguat (2020 – Merck’s Verquvo), and now a 2021 entry from Amgen in the form of the cardiac myosin activator omecamtiv mecarbil. None of those are a panacea, and of the four listed, omecamtiv has the lowest efficacy profile

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Closing a tough year: An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for December 2020

Cardiovascular health – go big or go narrow? A follow up on the development of evinacumab (Regeneron), an inhibitor of ANGPLT3 (see this opinionated take from 2017), confirming the safety and LDL reduction effect in a population of individuals with cholesterol levels refractory to other therapies (including PCSK9 inhibitors).  Given the history of PCSK9 inhibitors, the development path of this asset will be interesting to follow. Of the 6 trials listed on not one has anything close to a clinical endpoint – it’s all biomarker based. That will probably

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We are back and catching-up: An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for Sep, Oct, and Nov 2020

Small but real progress in ALS: Despite enormous public attention and significant effort, ALS remains a disease for which the development of new therapies has been challenging. Animal models showed potential activity against ALS by sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, both old (generic) molecules. Now, their effect in combination therapy has been confirmed in a randomized controlled trial.  What’s especially interesting is that the effect at 24 weeks (the original duration of the trial) was a modest though statistically significant improvement in functional scores. However, the trial was extended with all

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An ADC renaissance: a resurgence of antibody drug conjugates for cancer

PDF:  An ADC renaissance: a resurgence of antibody drug conjugates for cancer Summary: Antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) have seen a record number of approvals in 2020. This comes after a first era of intense activity in the early 2000s followed by a period of relative quiescence from the late 2000s to mid-2010s. To understand how the nature of the ADC pipeline has changed over time, we have reviewed all 88 ADC oncology programs that have reached phase 2 development and beyond from 1997 onward. We found that, currently, the main contributor

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A slow summer: An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for August 2020

A cheap, low tech intervention for a common Achilles’ heel When I am out and about, for instance at the grocery store, I am always surprised at the number of people I see with swollen legs. About half a million times a year in the US, these folks end-up in a hospital bed with cellulitis (a skin and subcutaneous infection) of the leg. In a single center randomized trial with 84 patients who had an episode of cellulitis, an Australian group tested whether compressive stockings would make a difference in

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An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for July 2020

Stunting and the microbiome Stunting (low growth for age) affects > 20% of children across the globe and has major impact on the brain, on health, and on opportunities for success in life. The precise mechanism of stunting has remained elusive. Sanitation and diet diversity play a role but targeted interventions in these areas have had less impact than hoped for. Jeff Gordon from WashU has spent the last decade exploring the relationship between stunting and the microbiome, and now his group reports on a study that shows a clear

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Covid, medical education, and a bit of RNAi: An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for June 2020

What’s your blood type? The first report of a genome wide association study of Covid-19 severity on approximately 4000 patients and controls conducted in Spain and Italy identifies a locus on the 3rd chromosome that spans 6 potential genes for which polymorphisms appear to drive severe disease. Once the culprit gene is determined, this may help us think about drug targets. Reassuringly the study also recovers the correlation of severity with blood group that has empirically been noted in the past (on chromosome 9 although the signal is not as

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Covid, iPSCs, and ADCs: An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for May 2020

Remdesivir works… but not enough to change the public health perspective The eagerly awaited results of the remdesivir NIH trial are out, and it’s solid but not smashing, although this is a partial read since the study was interrupted before completion because of evidence of benefit (and we should get more data in the coming months).  Overall, the primary end-point of faster improvement in the treatment group was met while mortality showed a benefit that was just short of statistical significance. Also important is that remdesivir is clearly safe. But

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Covid and the rest: An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for April 2020

Hydroxychloroquine does not seem to help much in Covid-19 (with caveat) There has been significant attention to the use of the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine in Covid-19, but data on impact has been scarce. In the absence of clarity, New York Presbyterian Hospital left the use of this drug to the discretion of individual treating physicians from mid-March to early April. This has led to two cohorts of Covid-19 patients which can be compared in retrospective analysis: patients treated with hydroxychloroquine (N=811) and those who did not receive the drug (N=565).   The

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The infectiologists have the floor: An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for March 2020

A first Covid-19 interventional study – unfortunately negative The first of what promises to be a series of many interventional studies for acute Covid-19 disease to appear in the Journal. Lopinavir is an HIV drug that had shown in-vitro activity against SARS, another corona virus, and ritonavir is a drug that boosts lopinavir concentration by reducing its rate of metabolization – so it was worth trying the combo in sick patients with Covid-19.  The study was clearly conducted in quasi-battlefield conditions in one of Wuhan’s main hospital from mid-January to

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Coronavirus and more: An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for January/February 2020

Keeping up with COVID-19 It’s not easy for a refereed weekly print periodical to keep up with an epidemic that evolves on a daily basis, but the NEJM is doing its best and all articles are free on-line. Most interesting beyond the description of the initial cluster in Wuhan are: (1) the first US case was quite severe and the patient received the antiviral remdesivir (was in development by Gilead for Ebola, but showing activity against coronaviruses) – it is now in testing in China; (2) the rigorous documentation of

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Tax dollars doing good work: An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for December 2019

The loneliness of the patent-less drug Colchicine is a very old drug commonly used in gout with an anti-inflammatory mechanism of action that is not well defined. It is a generic (although in the US, the story is somewhat peculiar) and therefore incentives are lacking for further development in new indications by private companies. Given a well-established (but not well-understood) connection between inflammation and cardiovascular events, some researchers have hypothesized and explored potential utility in patients with high cardiovascular risk – but this would have to be validated by a

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An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for November 2019

A triumph for cystic fibrosis patients (and for Vertex) Phase 3 confirmation that the benefits seen in early trials from triple-combination therapy of elexacaftor, tezacaftor, and ivacaftor, are sustained and applicable to 90% of the cystic fibrosis patients.  Every metric is unambiguously better: sweat chloride concentration, forced expiration volume (FEV1), respiratory symptom questionnaire, pulmonary exacerbations (down 60%), hospitalizations (down 70%). If anything, with 400 subjects, the study was probably overpowered by at least a factor of 4 to show effect.  It is great news for CF patients most of whom

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An opinionated take on NEJM highlights for October 2019

Genomic applications and scalability Two very different papers about applications of genomics, one for a very common clinical scenario, the other for an ultra-rare disease. It is well known that while clopidogrel (now available as a generic but branded as Plavix) is an excellent antiplatelet agent for a majority of patients, it works poorly in some due to individual genetic idiosyncrasies of cytochrome driven drug metabolism. Since then, other agents (tigracrelor AKA Brilinta, prasugrel AKA Effient) with a similar mechanism of action but more consistent metabolism have come on market,

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