Four months after AstraZeneca received FDA approval for vandetanib, a treatment for inoperable medullary thyroid cancer, the company announced the drug’s trade name: Caprelsa. FDA said other proposed names – Zactima, for example – too closely resembled other currently marketed proprietary names.
Getting FDA approval on a brand name for vandetanib, AstraZeneca’s very first orphan drug, isn’t the only challenge the company has faced during launch. The size of the patient population eligible for Caprelsa is decidedly small, but ultimately fuzzy. “We don’t really know how many patients there are at any given time,” says Eric Vogel, executive director of oncology, at AstraZeneca. “In some reports its 1,000 [in the US], and the FDA thinks it may be 2,000 to 2,500.” Compounding the difficulties presented by a tiny patient population, relatively speaking, is the fact that not all medullary thyroid cancer patients would benefit from Caprelsa; the drug is indicated only for patients whose cancer “has progressed to the point where surgery is no longer an option.”
Vogel says the company is “learning as we go” during the launch. “We believe that roughly half of the patient population will end up in the major treatment centers around the country, but that the other half may or may not continue to be followed by the community endocrinologist or medical oncologist,” says Vogel. Traditional market research hasn’t uncovered a network of physicians treating medullary thyroid cancer, since Caprelsa represents the first pharmaceutical treatment option for those patients, says Vogel. “There are some things that we can do to find physicians that look like they might be treating [medullary thyroid cancer], but it’s an inexact science at this point.”
AstraZeneca signed an exclusive distribution deal with Biologics, an oncology management company and specialty pharmacy, last April. Biologics also distributes AstraZeneca’s Arimidex, as well as Novartis’ Afinitor, Gleevec and Tasigna, Bayer/Onyx’s Nexavar, Celgene’s Revlimid, BMS/Otsuka’s Sprycel, Pfizer’s Stutent, Merck’s Zolinza, Roche/Genentech’s Xeloda and others, according to an “in stock” list on the company’s website. The decision to partner with Biologics for distribution had to do with the size of the patient population, and the amount of support that patients using Caprelsa would need, says Vogel. “We’re pleased with the relationship. [Biologics] spends 45 minutes, on average, with each patient, according to the reports we get from them,” Vogel says. Biologics, for its part, provided a team of 10 nurse liaisons tasked with educating physicians about the drug, and easing the administrative burden on the physician’s practice, Dan Duffy, executive VP and general manager, oncology pharmacy services group, told PharmExec.
In addition to Biologics’ nurse liaisons, AstraZeneca has deployed “regional scientific managers” – physician and/or nurse-facing individuals, to “communicate to our HCP audience about risks associated with Caprelsa, the REMS programs and all of the precautions, as well as any questions they might have around the efficacy or safety of the product,” says Vogel. The REMS program has helped AstraZeneca identify customers, since physicians have to become certified through REMS before prescribing the drug. “Down the road, we may broaden our reach out to community oncologists, those who we’re already calling on with our sales forces for Faslodex,” says Vogel.
The company hopes new indications will be forthcoming, and is currently looking to Europe for the next Caprelsa launch. Laura Woodin, senior manager, corporate affairs, said in an email that Caprelsa is being evaluated in “more than 40 early-stage studies” and various tumor types, including pancreatic, glioblastoma (brain), biliary tract (liver duct), as well as two other forms of thyroid cancer, papillary and follicular. “We’re trying to take our learnings from the US and apply those to other markets,” says Vogel. In terms of a possible launch in the EU, Vogel says the patient population size across Europe is roughly the same as the US patient size, but right now, “it’s not efficient to commercialize [Caprelsa] country by country.” “We will commercialize it country by country as we get new indications, but we have to look at it more broadly by much larger markets” for now, says Vogel.
Caprelsa is currently under review with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and Health Canada, according to Woodin.