Novartis's Bid to Repurpose Inflammation Drug Ilaris Takes Another Hit

By Reuters Staff

March 11, 2021

ZURICH (Reuters) - Novartis's uphill struggle to re-purpose its inflammation drug Ilaris took another hit when the Swiss drugmaker said on Tuesday that the medicine failed to boost overall survival in lung cancer patients in a late-stage trial.

The drug, known generically as canakinumab and long approved to treat juvenile arthritis and rare Mediterranean fever, last year failed to help patients suffering from COVID-19 respiratory distress.

And Novartis was blocked in 2018 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in its bid to re-cast the medicine, which now runs around $200,000 annually in the United States and reaped some $873 million last year, as a heart disease treatment.

The latest setback comes after canakinumab, a so-called interleukin-1beta (IL-1β) inhibitor, mixed with chemotherapy did not bring about a significant improvement in overall survival in previously treated patients with advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer in a Phase III study.

While the results were disappointing, "these data give us valuable insights into IL-1β inhibition," said John Tsai, head of global drug development and chief medical officer at Novartis, in a statement.

Tsai did say Novartis's efforts to expand canakinumab to cancer treatment continues, with two Phase III non-small cell lung cancer clinical trials ongoing in first-line treatment and for adjuvant treatment after surgery.

The drug's potential as a cancer treatment emerged as a surprise in 2017 from Novartis's long, 10,000-patient trial in cardiovascular disease, when scientists doing the studies discovered that participants getting the medicine had less risk of getting cancers that are driven in part by inflammation.

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