ECTRIMS: Roche's Ocrevus combats biomarker that may spur MS progression

Roche, already fast in grabbing multiple sclerosis market share with Ocrevus, has new data showing the drug's impact on a biomarker that may help predict disease progression.

Patients with relapsing-remitting or primary progressive forms of MS saw their blood neurofilament light chain (NfL) levels lowered to a healthy donor range after Ocrevus treatment, Roche said Tuesday.

Because NfL protein provides structural support to nerve fibers in the brain, its increases in the blood may suggest nerve cell damage, Roche said. New data and previous reports have shown PPMS and RRMS patients with active brain lesions had significantly higher NfL levels, and so the company argues NfL could serve as a potential biomarker of disease progression and as a way to show the neuroprotective effects of Ocrevus.

Specifically, in a phase 3 study of RRMS patients, Ocrevus cut blood NfL levels by 43% after 96 weeks, compared with a reduction of 31% in those who got traditional interferon beta-1a treatment. In a separate PPMS study, the decreases of NfL levels were 16% for the Roche drug and 0.2% with placebo.

RELATED: Roche bolsters MS blockbuster Ocrevus with new long-term disability data

Ocrevus is a rising star at Roche, whose old cancer stalwarts have recently come under biosimilar attack. Dubbed as the most successful launch in Roche’s history, the drug racked up a sales jump of 63% at constant currencies in the first half of 2019, reaching CHF 1.74 billion ($1.75 billion). And that happened just as it wrapped up its second full year on the market.

The drug has grown its U.S. new-to-brand share to about 40%, the highest among all disease-modifying MS treatments, despite recent launches of rivals such as Novartis’ Mayzent, execs said in July. The Novartis therapy is the first specifically approved to treat secondary progressive MS, a subset of patient within RRMS, which Ocrevus is approved in. Mayzent's success is dependent on physicians identifying patients who have progressed from RRMS to SPMS, which requires education—even though Novartis estimates that up to 80% of RRMS will make that progression. 

RELATED: Novartis' repurposed cancer drug Arzerra outpaces Sanofi's Aubagio in multiple sclerosis trial

Meanwhile, Novartis also has a new, or rather repurposed, drug in the works that could be a direct in-class competitor to Ocrevus. The fellow Swiss drugmaker just showed that its ofatumumab, already marketed as unsuccessful blood cancer drug Arzerra, beat Sanofi’s Aubagio in a head-to-head RRMS study. Both Arzerra and Ocrevus are anti-CD20 drugs.