Korlym: How an abortion pill turned out to be a treatment for a rare disease

Even though the $550 yellow pills sold as Korlym have a controversial origin as the abortion pill, Leslie Edwin said they “gave me life.”

The 40-year-old Georgia resident lives with Cushing’s syndrome, a potentially deadly condition that causes high levels of the hormone cortisol to wreak havoc on a body. When first diagnosed, she said, she gained about 100 pounds, her blood sugars were “out of control,” and she suffered acne, the inability to sleep and constant anxiety.

“I wouldn’t leave the house,” Edwin said of her first bout with the condition. “I quit my job after a certain point. I just couldn’t keep being in front of people.”

That’s when Edwin endured surgeries, including one to remove her pituitary gland. She went into remission, but then, in 2016, her weight shot up 30 pounds and the anxious feelings returned. Her doctors prescribed Korlym.

The drug’s active ingredient is mifepristone, once called RU-486 and better known as the abortion pill because it causes a miscarriage when taken early in a pregnancy. Nearly two decades ago, Danco Laboratories won approval to market Mifeprex in the United States as the abortion drug, with tight restrictions on use. Corcept Therapeutics, a Silicon Valley-based drug company, began marketing Korlym six years ago as a specialty drug for about 10,000 rare-disease patients such as Edwin.

The difference in price between Korlym and Mifeprex is striking, even though the ingredients are the same: One 200-milligram pill to prompt an abortion costs about $80. In contrast, a 300-milligram pill prescribed for Cushing’s runs about $550 before discounts. (Patients wanting an abortion take only one pill. People with Cushing’s often take up to three pills a day for months or years.)

Joseph Belanoff, chief executive of the drug’s maker, Corcept, said Korlym’s average cost per patient is $180,000 annually and concedes that “we have an expensive drug. There’s no getting around that.” But, he said, he believes Corcept has a “social contract” to take care of patients and pledged that any patient who is prescribed Korlym will get it regardless of insurance coverage or costs.

The story of Korlym highlights how America’s drug development system can turn an old drug into a new one that treats relatively few — but often very desperate — patients.

When the Food and Drug Administration approved Korlym in 2012, it was designated as an orphan drug, giving Corcept seven years of market exclusivity as well as other economic incentives. Congress approved orphan drug incentives to encourage the development of medicines for rare diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 patients. Since the drug’s approval, Korlym’s price has risen about 150 percent, and last year the company’s revenue nearly doubled to $159.2 million and it reported a net income of $129.1 million. (Korlym is the company’s only product, and it treats about 1,000 patients in the United States.)

Belanoff said the profits from Korlym pay for the company’s past spending on the drug’s research and development as well as its effort to create new drugs. The company recently reported an encouraging Phase 2 trial update on Korlym’s successor, relacorilant, a drug that could treat Cushing’s without the side effects for some women of endometrial thickening and vaginal bleeding that can occur with Korlym.

The company’s pipeline is also full of potential oncology drugs that hold the promise of using molecules to influence the cortisol receptors, with wide-ranging effects in the body. Korlym in combination with another drug is being tested for the treatment of metastatic triple-negative breast cancer, which tends to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer. And relacorilant is in the very early stages of testing to treat castration-resistant prostate cancer.

While many of the second-generation drugs are not related to Korlym structurally, Korlym did “provide the funding. . . . If there had not been orphan-drug pricing and the [Orphan Drug] Act, you would have to look for a different way to develop those drugs,” Belanoff said.

Korlym came to market in 2012 with an average wholesale price of $223.20 per pill before discounts, according to the health-care technology firm Connecture. By December 2017, each pill had an average wholesale price of $549.60 before any discounts or rebates were negotiated for patients.

Teva Pharmaceutical Industries recently announced it had filed an application to produce a generic version of the drug. Teva declined to comment for this report.

A ‘pioneering substance’

Cushing’s syndrome happens when the body produces too much cortisol, which normally helps keep the cardiovascular system functioning well and allows the body to turn proteins, carbohydrates and fats into energy. But too much cortisol can be destructive. It can cause cognitive difficulties, depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, bone loss and, in some cases, Type 2 diabetes. Those affected by the syndrome can develop a fatty hump between their shoulders and a rounded face. Without treatment, patients can die of a variety of complications, including sepsis after the hormone compromises the immune system.

Mifepristone, the active ingredient in Korlym, helps Cushing’s patients by blocking the body’s ability to process cortisol. It induces an abortion by blocking another of the body’s receptors, for progesterone, which causes the uterine wall to break down and the pregnancy to end.

When the FDA approved Korlym for a specific set of Cushing’s patients, the agency required a “TERMINATION OF PREGNANCY” warning box at the top of the label.

Endocrinologist Constantine Stratakis, scientific director at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, who specializes in treating people with Cushing’s syndrome, calls mifepristone a “pioneering substance” because it “has a lot of crossover” to other receptors in the body.

That means the drug has a lot of potential uses. Belanoff and Alan Schatzberg, a Stanford University psychiatrist and scientist, co-founded Corcept in 1998 to explore whether mifepristone could help treat major depression. In 2002, Schatzberg said the drug “may be the equivalent of shock treatments in a pill.” But clinical trials were not successful.

Social contract

By 2007, Corcept had found another possibility and filed an application to see whether mifepristone might work for Cushing’s patients.

Developing the drug cost about $300 million, according to Belanoff, and involved long-term toxicology tests to ensure that patients could safely take high doses for months or years. Korlym is approved to treat Cushing’s patients who have failed to relieve their symptoms through surgery or do not qualify for surgery, so some patients expect to take it for the rest of their lives while others just a few months.

Most patients are covered by private insurance, Belanoff said, but Medicare and Medicaid pay for the drug as well. According to Medicare Part D data, 52 Korlym patients cost Medicare $2.6 million in 2013. Two years later, 115 beneficiaries filed claims of $11.4 million.

Edwin is on private insurance and describes herself as being in “a really high tax bracket,” yet she never paid more than $25 a month through Corcept’s patient assistance program . She stopped taking the drug last year after her Cushing’s symptoms retreated.

“Across the board, it would be very difficult to find any patient that pays the full price,” said Edwin, who volunteers as president of the nonprofit patient advocacy group Cushing’s Support and Research Foundation.

The small organization, which reported $50,000 in contributions and grants in 2015, notes on its website that Corcept as well as Novartis Oncology provide financial support to the organization. The group’s federal tax filing details that the majority of its expenses go to distributing a quarterly newsletter, contacting members and patients “to promote mission,” and referring patients to doctors.

Specialty drugs such as Korlym often have sky-high price tags and are often distributed through special pharmacy programs. Drug companies commonly work with insurers and patient assistance programs to lower the patient’s out-of-pocket costs.

But for Corcept, the effort to brand the drug as a Cushing’s medication was also important, Belanoff said: “We were starting with a notorious drug.”

“There is a real infrastructure in caring for these patients,” he said. “It is not just like getting your medicine at [a drug store] and figuring out what to do with it.”

Sherwin D’Souza, an internal medicine doctor at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Idaho, prescribed Korlym for the first time last year to Vonda Huddleston, who was uninsured. D’Souza said he knew Corcept would provide financial assistance until Huddleston could get insurance to help pay for surgery to remove a tumor in her adrenal gland that is suspected of causing her high cortisol levels.

Huddleston, though, did not feel well on the drug and gained weight. D’Souza took her off Korlym and scheduled surgery. “I was sort of trying to buy time and treat her conditions,” D’Souza said. “It’s very expensive . . . but they do have a very good program for patients in need of the drug.”

Kaiser Health News

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Glowing cancer tool illuminates benign, but dangerous, brain tumors during pituitary surgery

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

PHILADELPHIA – An experimental imaging tool that uses a targeted fluorescent dye successfully lit up the benign brain tumors of patients during removal surgery, allowing surgeons to identify tumor tissue, a new study from researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania shows. The tumors, known as pituitary adenomas, are the third most common brain tumor, and very rarely turn cancerous, but can cause blindness, hormonal disorders, and in some cases, gigantism.

Findings from the pilot study of 15 patients, published this week in the Journal of Neurosurgery, build upon previous clinical studies showing intraoperative molecular imaging developed by researchers at Penn’s Center for Precision Surgery can improve tumor surgeries. According to first author John Y.K. Lee, MD, MSCE, an associate professor of Neurosurgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the Center for Precision Surgery, this study describes the first targeted, near infrared dye to be employed in brain tumor surgery. Other dyes are limited either by their fluorescent range being in the busy visible spectrum or by lack of specificity.

“This study heralds a new era in personalized tumor surgery. Surgeons are now able to see molecular characteristics of patient’s tumors; not just light absorption or reflectance,” Lee said. “In real time in the operating room, we are seeing the unique cell surface properties of the tumor and not just color. This is the start of a revolution.”

Non-specific dyes have been used to visualize and precisely cut out brain tumors during resection surgery, but this dye is believed to be the first targeted, near infrared dye to be used in neurosurgery. The fluorescent dye, known as OTL38, consists of two parts: vitamin B9 (a necessary ingredient for cell growth), and a near infrared glowing dye. As tumors try to grow and proliferate, they overexpress folate receptors. Pituitary tumors can overexpress folate receptors more than 20 times above the level of the normal pituitary gland in some cases. This dye binds to these receptors and thus allows us to identify tumors.

“Pituitary adenomas are rarely cancerous, but they can cause other serious problems for patients by pushing up against parts of their brain, which can lead to Cushing’s disease, gigantism, blindness and death,” Lee explained. “The study shows that this novel, targeted, near infrared fluorescent dye technique is safe, and we believe this technique will improve surgery.”

Lee says larger studies are warranted to further demonstrate its clinical effectiveness, especially in nonfunctioning pituitary adenomas.

A big challenge with this type of brain surgery is ensuring the entire tumor is removed. Parts of the tumor issue are often missed by conventional endoscopy approaches during removal, leading to a recurrence in 20 percent of patients. The researchers showed that the technique was safe and effective at illuminating the molecular features of the tumors in the subset of patients with nonfunctioning pituitary adenomas.

The technique uses near-infrared, or NIR, imaging and OTL38 fluoresces brightly when excited by NIR light. The VisionSense IridiumTM 4mm endoscope is a unique camera system which can be employed in the narrow confines of the nasal cavity to illuminate the pituitary adenoma. Both the dye and the camera system are needed in order to perform the surgery successfully.

The rate of gross-total resection (GTR) for the 15 patients, based on postoperative MRI, was 73 percent. The GTR with conventional approaches ranges from 50 to 70 percent. Residual tumor was identified on MRI only in patients with more severe tumors, including cavernous sinus invasion or a significant extrasellar tumor.

In addition, for the three patients with the highest overexpression of folate, the technique predicted post-operative MRI results with perfect concordance.

Some centers have resorted to implementing MRI in the operating room to maximize the extent of resection. However, bringing a massive MRI into the operating room theater remains expensive and has been shown to produce a high number of false-positives in pituitary adenoma surgery. The fluorescent dye imaging tool, Lee said, may serve as a replacement for MRIs in the operating room.

Co-authors on the study include M. Sean Grady, MD, chair of Neurosurgery at Penn, and Sunil Singhal, MD, an associate professor of Surgery, and co-director the Center for Precision Surgery.

Over the past four years, Singhal, Lee, and their colleagues have performed more than 400 surgeries using both nonspecific and targeted near infrared dyes. The breadth of tumor types include lung, brain, bladder and breast.

Most recently, in July, Penn researchers reported results from a lung cancer trial using the OTL38 dye. Surgeons were able to identify and remove a greater number of cancerous nodules from lung cancer patients with the dye using preoperative positron emission tomography, or PET, scans. Penn’s imaging tool identified 60 of the 66 previously known lung nodules, or 91 percent. In addition, doctors used the tool to identify nine additional nodules that were undetected by the PET scan or by traditional intraoperative monitoring.

Researchers at Penn are also exploring the effectiveness of additional contrast agents, some of which they expect to be available in the clinic within a few months.

“This is the beginning of a whole wave of new dyes coming out that may improve surgeries using the fluorescent dye technique,” Lee said. “And we’re leading the charge here at Penn.”

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This study was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health (R01 CA193556), the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (UL1TR000003).

Editor’s Note: Dr. Singhal holds patent rights over the technologies presented in this article.

Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $6.7 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report’s survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $392 million awarded in the 2016 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center — which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report — Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital — the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2016, Penn Medicine provided $393 million to benefit our community.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.

From https://eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-09/uops-gct090517.php

Endoscopic Surgery on a Pituitary Adenoma

Philip Theodosopoulos, M.D. is Professor and Vice-Chair of Neurological Surgery at the University of California, San Francisco. He is the Director of the Skull Base Tumor Program and has extensive experience performing endoscopic transsphenoidal pituitary surgery for pituitary tumors (over 1000 operations) and other disease processes as well as tumors of the base of the skull.

In this video Dr. Theodosopoulos illustrates portions of an endoscopic resection of a pituitary adenoma.

 

To learn more about Dr. Theodosopoulos and to schedule an appointment for consultation please copy this link:
neurosurgery.UCSF.edu/index.php/about_us_faculty_theodosopoulos.html

Imaging Technique Measures Tumor Stiffness to Aid Surgical Planning

screenshot-2017-01-27-11-04-44

 

Important steps in planning tumor surgery include identifying borders between tumor and healthy tissue and assessing the tumor stiffness, e.g. hard and calcified or soft and pliant. For decades, tumors near the surface of the body have been evaluated for stiffness by simple palpation—the physician pressing on the tissue. Because tumors within the skull cannot be palpated, researchers used Magnetic Resonance Elastography (MRE) to assess pituitary tumor stiffness by measuring waves transmitted through the skull into pituitary macroadenomas (PMAs). MRE reliably identified tumors that were soft enough for removal with a minimally-invasive suction technique versus harder tumors requiring more invasive surgery.

“The group developed brain MRE several years ago and is now successfully applying it to clinical diagnosis and treatment,” explained Guoying Liu, Ph.D., Director of the NIBIB Program in Magnetic Resonance Imaging. “This development of a new imaging technique followed by its practical application in surgical planning for better patient outcomes is an outstanding example of one of the main objectives of NIBIB-funded research.”

MRE is a special magnetic resonance imaging technique that captures snapshots of shear waves that move through the tissue and create elastograms—images that show tissue stiffness. John Huston III, M.D., Professor of Radiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, and senior author of the study, explains how MRE works. “MRE is similar to a drop of water hitting a still pond to create the ripples that move out in all directions. We generate tiny, harmless ripples, or shear waves, that travel through the brain of the patient. Our instruments measure how the ripples change as they move through the brain and those changes give us an extremely accurate measure–and a color-coded picture–of the stiffness of the tissue.”

MRE data enables non-invasive surgical planning

Ninety percent of PMAs are soft—nearly the consistency of toothpaste. Therefore, without MRE, surgeons would routinely plan for a procedure called transphenoidal resection that employs very thin instruments that are threaded through the nasal cavity to the pituitary gland at the base of the skull, where suction is used to remove the tumor. However, in about 10% of the cases, the surgeon will encounter a hard tumor. At that point an attempt is made to break-up the tumor—essentially chipping away at it with sharp instruments. If that is not successful, the surgeon must perform a fully-invasive craniotomy that involves removing a piece of the skull bone in order to fully expose the tumor.

The more extensive procedure means added risk and discomfort for patients, and up to a week-long recovery in the hospital compared to the transphenoidal approach that allows patients to leave the hospital in a day or two. Using MRE, hard PMAs can be identified and the more extensive craniotomy can be planned before starting the surgery, which makes the more invasive procedure less taxing for both the surgeon and patient. Similarly, MRE showing a soft PMA gives surgeons confidence that the nasal entry and removal by suction will be successful-eliminating the likelihood that the surgeon may need to perform a second fully-invasive craniotomy.

In the study of PMA reported in the January 2016 issue of the journal Pituitary, the group performed pre-surgical MRE evaluation of the PMAs of 10 patients.The MRE measurements were compared to tumor classifications made by inspection of the tumor during surgery. The surgeons categorized six tumors as soft and four tumors as medium. No tumors were deemed to be hard. The comparison of the MRE results and reports of stiffness by the surgeons when the tumor was removed and inspected were in close agreement, which was confirmed by statistical analysis.

Future plans

Although brain MRE is not yet widely available, Huston explained that the surgeons at the Mayo Clinic are now routinely using MRE to plan the best procedure for the removal of PMAs as well as several other types of brain tumor. And, even though this study of the 10 PMA patients is a very small set, Huston believes that as Mayo surgeons continue to use MRE in planning, the technique will likely begin to be adopted by other surgical centers.

Huston explained that an important aspect of some of the other brain tumor types, which the surgeons are finding extremely useful, is the ability of MRE to identify tumor adhesion to the brain. Adhesion refers to whether the brain tumor and healthy brain tissue are connected by an extensive network of blood vessels and connective tissue. This is in comparison with a tumor that is in the brain but is isolated from healthy tissue.

When MRE is used to analyze this aspect of the tumor, it clearly identifies those that are non-adhered, showing a border around the tumor through which there are no vascular connections. Conversely, MRE of adhered tumors show no border between the tumor and healthy brain, indicating extensive vascular and soft tissue connections between brain and tumor. Mutual blood vessels make removal of adherent tumors much more difficult, with a much higher chance of damage to healthy tissue and potential loss of function for the patient.

Huston and his colleagues are continuing to apply MRE, often called “palpating by imaging” to diagnosis of other brain disorders. In addition to characterizing focal brain disorders such as tumors, the group is testing the potential for MRE to provide diagnostic information about diffuse brain disease, and are currently using MRE brain stiffness patterns to identify different types of neural disorders including dementia.

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health through the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering grant EB001981.

Magnetic resonance elastography detects tumoral consistency in pituitary macroadenomas. Hughes JD, Fattahi N, Van Gompel J, Arani A, Ehman R, Huston J 3rd. Pituitary. 2016 Jun;19(3):286-92

From http://www.rdmag.com/news/2017/01/imaging-technique-measures-tumor-stiffness-aid-surgical-planning

UAE Patient’s (Pituitary) Brain Tumour Removed Through Nostrils

Dubai: A 34-year-old patient working as a crane operator has undergone a remarkable new procedure of surgery at Thumbay Hospital, Dubai, that facilitated the removal of a brain tumour through the nostrils.

The patient, Mehnaj Khan, a Pakistani crane operator, underwent endoscopic trans-nasal trans-sphenoidal surgery in September, where the tumour was removed through the nose by endoscopic surgery without any cut or stitches on the skin. The father of five children has now made a full recovery, with improved vision, a hospital spokesperson said.

Khan first noticed something was wrong when his eyesight began to diminish, first the right eye, followed by the left eye. Although he had ignored his frequent bouts of headache for two years, Khan was compelled to visit an ophthalmologist due to vision deterioration. When an eye check-up revealed nothing was wrong, he was referred to to Thumbay Hospital, where an MRI scan of the brain revealed that he had a large tumour in the pituitary gland, pressing on the optic apparatus of brain and also hypothalamus, a very vital part of brain. This tumour was pressing on his optic nerves, causing him to slowly lose his sight.

Dr. Ishwar Chandra Premsagar, consultant neurosurgeon at Thumbay Hospital who operated on Khan, said: “Conventionally, such operations require surgeons to open the skull — a procedure known as a craniotomy. Alternatively, affected portions of the brain are reached via major incisions in the side of the face or inside the mouth, leaving behind major scars of the surgery. However, the patient’s tumour was removed by suctioning it out through his nose.”

An ear nose and throat (ENT) surgeon and an eye surgeon were consulted to plan the surgery and save further deterioration of vision while providing a chance for complete recovery.

Khan, who was nearly blind in one eye with the tumour growth, expressed his gratitude to the hospital and the teams of surgeons as he noticed improvement in his vision after the surgery. By the end of the week, he could read too. The patient was very thankful to the team of surgeons.

Dr Premsagar added: “The endoscope provides a close-up view of the pituitary, allowing the surgeon to remove the entire tumour out in one go through the nostrils, causing no disfigurement or damage to the brain. On the other hand, the procedure ensures far less danger of brain damage or stroke, and the patient usually makes a quicker recovery. Although post-surgery, deterioration of vision stops, but one cannot guarantee complete recovery of vision. This patient was lucky as his vision improved, but it may not happen in all patients. Hence, it is extremely important that one should ensure early consultation, diagnosis and surgery to ensure high chances of recovery.”

From http://gulfnews.com/news/uae/health/uae-patient-s-brain-tumour-removed-through-nostrils-1.1933841

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