AstraZeneca quietly sweeps out some notable mid-stage drug programs

As AstraZeneca was trumpeting the expansion of its late-stage pipeline on Thursday, the pharma giant ($AZN) also unceremoniously swept 15 therapeutic programs out of its pipeline--including a notable mid-stage therapy for depression along with a separate program for pain--leaving behind a shrinking group of neuroscience projects and little by way of explanation on the significance of the clinical executions.

In a section of discontinued projects for the year, AstraZeneca included AZD6765, one of the "Special K" experimental projects which had been mounted to see if a therapy could be devised that would provide the antidepressive benefit of the party drug without the party. The ketamine-like drug had been highlighted for its ability to trigger a rapid response among patients suffering from depression. But the effect could be ephemeral.

A couple of months ago FierceBiotech was tipped off that the drug had failed the second of two Phase II studies and was being dumped--though a spokesperson for the company declined to confirm or deny the report, noting that the update today would include the latest list of Phase I/Phase II fatalities.

In today's list of discontinued projects, AstraZeneca notes only that the depression drug failed for both safety and efficacy. "The results from the Phase IIb PURSUIT study for AZD6765, an adjunctive treatment of major depressive disorder in treatment-refractory patients, did not meet the primary endpoint," says a company spokesperson in an email. "A complete analysis and understanding of PURSUIT results together with previous clinical data will inform future development decisions."

The discards also include MEDI-5117 for pain. About a year ago, MedImmune chief Bahija Jallal had highlighted a deal with WuXi PharmaTech to develop 5117 for rheumatoid arthritis in China as an important initiative. Heralded back in the fall of 2012, AstraZeneca retained half the rights to 5117 and had the option to buy back all the rights in the deal, which was intended to carve a shortcut to the Asian market.

"We are still very much pursuing the development of MEDI-5117 for rheumatoid arthritis through our joint venture with WuXi AppTec," says a spokesperson.

AstraZeneca's reason for discontinuing the pain program: "Safety/efficacy."

The dud list includes AZD8330 (Array's ARRY-424704) an MEK 1/2 inhibitor that was in a Phase I study back in 2009; MEDI-557 for RSV; MEDI-575, which had been in a Phase II for glioblastoma multiforme and evidently non-small cell lung cancer.  

Fostamatinib for rheumatoid arthritis was publicly dismissed by AstraZeneca last year, but several other lesser known drugs were written off in the respiratory field: AZD5423, AZD7594 and MED-7814 for COPD, as well as MEDI-4212 for asthma. MEDI-7814 didn't make it for "economic" reasons.

There was also a set of three Alzheimer's therapies, AZD1446, AZD3480, AZD5213, which AstraZeneca had publicly handed back to Targacept ($TRGT) last spring. AZD1446 targets the alpha4beta2 neuronal nicotinic receptor and came out of the research collaboration between Targacept and AstraZeneca. That program was advanced after a major late-stage program for a depression drug was scuttled by bad data, raising some serious questions about Targacept's scientific approach and AstraZeneca's knack for picking losers.

AstraZeneca says it's adopting a new approach to burying the dead. It will do it quarterly now rather than every 6 months. 

- here's a link to the pipeline update (PDF)