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.

Endoscopic and Microscopic Surgery Equally Effective in Cushing’s Disease

Using endoscopic or microscopic techniques to surgically remove the pituitary glands leads to similar remission and recurrence rates in Cushing’s disease patients, a review of 24 studies shows.

The study, titled “Outcome of endoscopic vs microsurgical transsphenoidal resection for Cushing’s disease,” was published in the journal Endocrine Connections.

In endoscopic transsphenoidal surgery, a surgeon uses a tiny camera as a guide, allowing for a panoramic surgical view with increased illumination of anatomic structures. In microsurgical transsphenoidal resection, a surgeon views through a microscope and uses minute instruments or lasers. Both procedures are used in transsphenoidal (TS) surgery to remove pituitary gland tumors, the root cause of Cushing’s disease. In transsphenoidal surgery, a surgeon accesses the pituitary gland through the nose and sinuses.

While endoscopic surgery seems to lead to better patient outcomes, it was unclear before this study if it has any advantages in patients with Cushing’s disease.

To gain more insight into the remission and recurrence rates of both techniques, researchers examined a total of 24 studies that included 1,670 adult patients with Cushing’s syndrome. Of these patients, 702 underwent endoscopic TS, and 968 underwent microsurgical TS.

The study’s authors found that remission rates were similar in both groups. In the endoscopic group, an average of 79.7 percent of patients experienced remission versus 76.9 percent in the microscopic group.

Patients who underwent endoscopic surgery experienced recurrence less often than those who underwent microscopic surgery, with recurrence rates of 11 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively. But researchers pointed out that follow-up times in the studies varied, making comparisons unreliable.

When recurrence rates were calculated by person per year, which takes follow-up time into account, both groups had a recurrence rate of approximately 4 percent per person per year.

Previous studies have shown that complications following either type of surgery occurred at comparable rates. These complications include hypothyroidism (underactivity of the thyroid gland), diabetes insipidus (a condition characterized by increased thirst), CSF leakage (leakage of fluid that normally bathes the brain and spinal cord), visual defects, hypocortisolemia (low cortisol blood levels), and hypogonadism (little or no hormones produced by the sex glands).

“We found that overall remission proportion was the same in CD patients who underwent endoscopic TS compared to patients who underwent microscopic TS. However, patients treated with the endoscopic approach for micro-adenomas were more likely to achieve remission than those treated microsurgically. Patients treated endoscopically were less likely to experience recurrence; however, when follow-up time is taken into account, this advantage disappears,” the researchers concluded.

 

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2018/02/01/cushings-disease-transsphenoidal-surgery-study-finds-endoscopic-microscopic-procedures-equally-effective/

Postsurgical treatment often necessary in persistent, recurrent Cushing’s disease

Nearly half of adults with Cushing’s disease that persists or recurs after surgical treatment require second and sometimes third therapeutic interventions, including pituitary surgical reintervention, radiotherapy, pharmacotherapy or bilateral adrenalectomy, study data from Mexico show.

Moisés Mercado, MD, FRCPC, of the ABC Hospital Neurological and Cancer Centers in Mexico City, and colleagues evaluated 84 adults (median age, 34 years; 77 women) with Cushing’s disease to determine the long-term efficacy of secondary interventions for persistent and recurrent Cushing’s disease. Median follow-up was 6.3 years.

Overall, 81 participants were primarily treated with transsphenoidal surgery. More than half experienced long-lasting remission (61.7%); disease remained active in 16%, who were diagnosed with persistent Cushing’s disease; and 22% experienced relapse after remission and were diagnosed with recurrent Cushing’s disease.

After the initial procedure, 18 participants required pituitary surgical reintervention, including 10 with recurrent and eight with persistent disease. Radiation therapy was administered to 14 participants, including two as primary therapy and 12 after failed pituitary surgery. Pharmacologic treatment with ketoconazole was prescribed for 15 participants at one point during the course of disease. Bilateral adrenalectomy was performed in 12 participants.

Pituitary surgical reintervention was the most commonly used secondary treatment (22.2%), followed by pharmacologic therapy with ketoconazole (16%), radiotherapy (14.8%) and bilateral adrenalectomy (14.8%). More than half of participants experienced early remissions after a second operation (66.6%) and radiotherapy (58.3%), whereas long-lasting remission was reached in only 33.3% of participants who underwent a second surgery and 41.6% of participants who underwent radiotherapy. Half of participants who underwent bilateral adrenalectomy were diagnosed with Nelson’s syndrome.

Overall, 88% of participants achieved remission, and disease was biochemically controlled with pharmacologic treatment in 9.5% of participants after their initial, secondary and third-line treatments.

“The efficacy of treatment alternatives for recurrent or persistent [Cushing’s disease] vary among patients, and often, more than one of these interventions is required in order to achieve a long-lasting remission,” the researchers wrote. – by Amber Cox

Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.

From http://www.healio.com/endocrinology/adrenal/news/in-the-journals/%7B5519b312-5912-4c65-b2ed-2ece3f68e83f%7D/postsurgical-treatment-often-necessary-in-persistent-recurrent-cushings-disease

Postoperative ACTH, cortisol levels may predict Cushing’s disease remission rate

Early and midterm nonremission after transsphenoidal surgery in people with Cushing’s disease may be predicted by normalized early postoperative values for adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol, study data show.

Prashant Chittiboina, MD, MPH, assistant clinical investigator in the neurosurgery unit for pituitary and inheritable diseases at the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke at the NIH, and colleagues evaluated 250 patients with Cushing’s disease who received 291 transsphenoidal surgery procedures during the study period to determine remission after the procedure. Patients were treated between December 2003 and July 2016. Early remission was assessed at 10 days and medium-term remission was assessed at 11 months.

Early nonremission was predicted by normalized early postoperative values for cortisol (P = .016) and by normalized early postoperative values for adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH; P = .048). Early nonremission was further predicted with 100% sensitivity, 39% specificity, 100% negative predictive value and 18% positive predictive value for a cutoff of –12 µg/mL in normalized early postoperative values for cortisol and with 88% sensitivity, 41% specificity, 96% negative predictive value and 16% positive predictive value for a cutoff of –40 pg/mL in normalized early postoperative values for ACTH.

Medium-term nonremission was also predicted by normalized early postoperative values for cortisol (P = .023) and ACTH (P = .025).

“We evaluated the utility of early postoperative cortisol and ACTH levels for predicting nonremission after transsphenoidal adenomectomy for Cushing’s disease,” the researchers wrote. “Postoperative operative day 1 values at 6 a.m. performed best at predicting early nonremission, albeit with a lower [area under the receiver operating characteristic curve]. Normalizing early cortisol and ACTH values to post-[corticotropin-releasing hormone] values improved their prognostic value. Further prospective studies will explore the utility of normalized very early postoperative day 0 cortisol and ACTH levels in identifying patients at risk for nonremission following [transsphenoidal surgery] in patients with [Cushing’s disease].” – by Amber Cox

Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.

From http://www.healio.com/endocrinology/adrenal/news/in-the-journals/%7B7de200ed-c667-4b48-ab19-256d90a7bbc5%7D/postoperative-acth-cortisol-levels-may-predict-cushings-disease-remission-rate

Surgery Preferred Option in Cushing’s Disease for Best Survival

Patients with Cushing’s disease who have been in remission for more than 10 years still have an increased mortality risk compared with the general population, says an international team of researchers, who found the risk of early death was particularly increased in those with Cushing’s and accompanying circulatory disease.

Richard N Clayton, MD, department of medicine, Keele University, Stoke-on-Trent, United Kingdom, showed that Cushing’s disease, which is characterized by increased secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone by the anterior pituitary gland, is associated with an increased mortality risk of more than 60% and a median survival of around 40 years.

In patients who also had circulatory disease, the mortality risk was even higher, say Dr Clayton and colleagues.

However, patients who had undergone curative pituitary surgery had a long-term risk of death no different from that of the general population. US Endocrine Society guidelines published last August recommend that optimal treatment of Cushing’s syndrome involves direct surgical removal of the causal tumor.

But Dr Clayton and colleagues point out that even patients who undergo pituitary surgery will nevertheless “require lifelong follow-up at a center experienced in dealing with this condition, having regular checks for diabetes, hypertension, and other cardiovascular risk factors.”

The study was published online June 2 in Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology.

In an accompanying editorial, Rosario Pivonello, MD, PhD, department of clinical medicine and surgery, section of endocrinology, University of Naples Federico II, Italy, and colleagues write that, although surgery is not suitable for all patients, “Prompt pituitary surgery might be the preferred treatment for Cushing’s disease to guarantee the best mortality outcome.”

Calling for further research to better understand why one treatment “has a better effect on mortality than another,” they state: “The results from this study might also motivate rapid interventions, cure, and long-term follow-up in patients with Cushing’s disease — even for a long time after hypercortisolism resolution.”

Studying Those Who Have Survived More Than 10 Years

Dr Clayton and colleagues explain that previous studies have explored mortality in patients with Cushing’s disease during either active disease or remission. But the outcome of patients in remission, especially long-term remission, is still a matter of debate, and assessing long-term survival has been limited by various methodological differences. To overcome some of these issues, they performed a retrospective analysis of case records from specialist referral centers in the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.

They identified 320 patients diagnosed with Cushing’s disease and cured for a minimum of 10 years at enrollment and had no relapses during the study period. The ratio of women to men was 3:1.

Median patient follow-up was 11.8 years, yielding a total of 3790 person-years of follow-up 10 years after cure. There was no difference in follow-up between countries. And as there were no significant demographic and clinical differences between men and women, the data were pooled.

During the study 16% of patients died. Median survival was 31 years for women and 28 years for men, at approximately 40 years following remission. The overall standardized mortality ratio (SMR) for all-cause mortality compared with the general population was 1.61 (P = .0001).

Patients with Cushing’s and circulatory disease had an SMR vs the general population of 2.72 (P < .0001), but deaths from cancer among those who had survived Cushing’s disease were not higher than the general population, at an SMR of 0.79 (P = .41).

Patients with Cushing’s and diabetes also had an increased mortality risk, at a hazard ratio (HR) of 2.82 (P < .0096) compared with the general population, while hypertension was not significantly associated with increased mortality, at an HR of 1.59 (P = .08).

There was also an association between mortality and number of treatments, at an HR of 1.77 for two vs one treatment (P = .08) and an HR of 2.6 for three vs one treatment (P = .02).

Pituitary Surgery Alone Associated With No Increased Risk of Death

Pituitary surgery performed as the first and only treatment was associated with an SMR vs the general population of 0.94 compared with an SMR of 2.58 for other patients (P < .0005).

Patients who had pituitary surgery only had a median survival of 31 years compared with 24 years if surgery had been required at any time (P = 0.03).

The research team states: “For patients who have been cured of Cushing’s disease for 10 years or more, treatment complexity and an increased number of treatments, reflecting disease that is more difficult to control, appears to negatively affect survival.”

“Pituitary surgery alone achieves a mortality outcome that is not different from the normal population and should be performed in a center of excellence,” they conclude.

However, in the editorial, Dr Pivonello and colleagues point out that the surgical approach “is not a treatment option for some patients, either because of contraindications (eg, severe clinical complications) or because of an absence of clear indication for surgery (eg, tumor is not completely removable by surgery).”

The authors and editorialist have reported no relevant financial relationships.

Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. Published online June 2, 2016. Abstract, Editorial

From http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/865073#vp_2

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