Life science executives and investors descended upon San Francisco this week to share news and deal opportunities at the 34th annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, held from January 11 to 14. Although the week got off to a rocky start — on Monday, the 190-member Nasdaq Biotechnology Index fell 3.4 percent, the worst opening day of trading during the conference since 2001 — the energy picked up as the week went on.
Between the chance for biotech executives and investors to sit down for dealmaking — for a price, at $80 per hour, in some cases — and a biotech party, with models in matching short, tight, black dresses to “balance out a shortage of women in town for the conference with ones who’d been hired to mingle and hold champagne” were corporate presentation updates.
Here, we’ve rounded up some of the top news that came out of the conference.
Hope for gene therapy continues
Gene therapy, an approach that aims to treat disease by replacing a damaged gene with a functioning one, has been hit by disappointing news from recent clinical trials, reports STAT. But company executives aren’t disenchanted by the news. “The next five years are the five years that gene therapy has been looking for for the last 35 years,” Nick Leschly, chief executive of Bluebird Bio, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup, said during a presentation Tuesday at the conference.
Despite the optimism presented, gene therapy has its challenges: patients respond differently to gene therapies over time, and since it’s a one-time treatment, will likely command a very high price. Read more here.
Spark Therapeutics, which is working on gene therapies for rare diseases, outlined a three-year plan: its first product, a Phase 3 treatment for a blindness-causing disorder, is on track to launch next year and the Philadelphia-headquartered company plans to see nine other gene therapies enter clinical trials, reports FierceBiotech. Read more here.
Drug pricing dismissal
At one panel discussion, when asked how he lives with the $84,000 price tag for Gilead’s breakthrough hepatitis C drug, executive vice president Gregg Alton joked that he goes running, reports STAT. Pharma executives at the conference spoke about the innovation and research of such life-saving drugs, dismissing public outrage over high drug pricing as misguided.
Public anger at drug companies is “an abomination,” Ron Cohen, chairman of the industry group BIO, said at the Biotech Showcase. All the talk about pharma profiteering is “a perversion of reality,” he said. Read more here.
Digital health shines through
Executives and investors from large pharmaceutical companies weren’t the only players at the annual conference. In fact, much of the dealmaking happens among small companies not invited to the event, reports SFGate. About 100 health care startups turned a nearby co-working space and coffeehouse into the site of the StartUp Health Festival, where entrepreneurs hoped to connect with investors and potential business partners.
Tech companies, with the digitization of healthcare, “are coming in from a different angle, and it’s going to be an area where we have to watch leverage and pay real attention,” said Chief Executive Officer of Novartis, Joe Jimenez, at the conference.
Pfizer, Allergan CEOs discuss proposed combination
Chief executive officers of Pfizer and Allergan said Tuesday at the conference that the record $160 billion proposed combination is “meant to produce more medicines and boost revenue, not to just slash jobs and other costs as the companies previously have done,” reports the Associated Press. Pfizer CEO Ian Read and Allergan CEO Brett Saunders both said that Pfizer’s purchase of Allergan would help the combined company expand more quickly, and that the companies have “lots of new drugs” they plan to launch in the next few years. Read more here.
In a recent interview with Reuters, the companies’ research chiefs said the proposed combination of their experimental drugs deserves greater credit, including possible blockbuster treatments for schizophrenia and depression. “There has been a lot of attention on financial aspects of the deal, but there has been an underestimation of the Allergan pipeline,” said Pfizer Research Chief Mikael Dolsten.
Express Scripts stock plunges as client threatens to leave
Express Scripts’s stock fell 6.9 percent in early trading Wednesday after its biggest client, Anthem Inc., said it would leave for a competitor unless the pharmacy benefit manager can deliver $3 billion a year more in savings on drug costs, reports Bloomberg.
Anthem Chief Executive Officer Joseph Swedish told investors Tuesday at the conference, “We are entitled to improved pharmaceutical pricing that equates to an annual value capture of more than $3 billion.” Express Scripts said that Anthem was “mischaracterizing the situation.” Read more here.
GSK might consider spinoffs after Novartis deal
GlaxoSmithKline’s Chief Executive Officer Andrew Witty said he is willing to consider investor suggestions to separate the company once the Novartis deal, which created deals in vaccines and consumer health, is complete, reports Bloomberg. “By bringing these businesses all to real global scale, it for the first time creates the optionality for potentially different structures down the road,” Witty said in an interview Tuesday at the conference. Read more here.
Filed Under: Drug Discovery