Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Readout by Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Welcome to The Readout, where we keep you on top of all the biotech news. Check out our full lineup of other newsletters on pharma, health, hospitals and more.

Backlash at high drug prices are hitting pharma where it hurts

There was something special about last week’s biopharma stock slide: It was the first time, really, that drug pricing pressures have shown up in earnings reports.

Companies like Biogen and Amgen made clear that they can't rely on price hikes to buoy revenue any more. They have to take on the much harder task of expanding sales by boosting demand.

And that spooked investors.

Pharma execs pinned their less-than-rosy growth projections on pharmacy benefit managers, which have been demanding hefty rebates in exchange for keeping drugs accessible to patients. But there is plenty of blame to go around: Insurers and doctors are also balking at pricey drugs, and politicians are noisily laying plans for a crackdown.

Read more.

How should we talk about Alzheimer’s drug studies?

“Hope for Alzheimer's sufferers as scientists develop new drug to treat dementia,” says the Mirror. “'Important' Alzheimer's drug to reduce protein in the brain could be in pharmacies by 2020,” according to the Express. And “Alzheimer's treatment within reach after successful drug trial,” per the Guardian.

What's all the hubbub about? Just this: Preclinical data from a small clinical trial were published in Science Translational Medicine. The drug in question, Merck’s verubecestat, has shown early, unproven signs that it can cut off the production of beta amyloid plaques, which are widely believed to play a role in the brain-destroying effects of Alzheimer’s. Whether it actually, like, works won’t be known until well into next year, when Merck is scheduled to present results from a large, late-stage study.

Which is to say it’s maybe a little early to herald “hope for Alzheimer’s sufferers” or declare a treatment to be “within reach.” Scientists generally scoff at hype-heavy headlines, understandably worried that they’ll plant unrealistic expectations in the minds of Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families.

But drug developers are wary, too, of more realistic coverage that dwells on the long odds of success in the field. More than 99 percent of Alzheimer’s treatments have failed in clinical trials over the last decade, as almost any good reporting on the subject will tell you. Emphasizing that fact, however, can be discouraging to patients who might otherwise choose to participate in a clinical trial, researchers say. If everyone believes Alzheimer’s studies are doomed, they’ll be doomed by apathy.

So maybe let's all take a step back.

Sponsor content by STAT Careers

From genetic counselors to biomedical engineers, we’ve got you covered

From 2014 to 2024, jobs for genetic counselors are expected to grow by 29 percent, making it one of the fastest growing jobs in the United States (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Across biotechnology and life sciences, many new positions that haven’t been as prevalent in the past are going to experience the same, drastic growth. To keep up with the demand, visit the STAT Job Board to see the latest and greatest opportunities, as well as add your own.

Gilead and the Goldilocks biotech deal

Where’s that big, transformative deal Gilead investors have been clamoring for since 2015? The company is “very active” in the M&A space, CEO John Martin told analysts this week. It’s just that some stuff is “too early” for the company’s tastes, and then other stuff is “just overpriced,” Martin said.

And, sure, that seems reasonable. But Gilead has been saying pretty much the same thing quarter after quarter as its almost comically lucrative hepatitis C franchise peaked and plateaued. The company just eulogized three once-promising pipeline drugs, raising further questions about where growth is going to come from over the next few years. Gilead has repeatedly name-checked oncology as a target for investment, but it hasn’t made any substantial deals on that front.

Add all that up, and even the most optimistic analyst takes on Gilead’s third quarter include “not as bad as feared” and “the worst may be over.” On the pessimistic side, Adam Feuerstein summed up a lot of voices with “Gilead was great once but is now awful and depressing.”

What's in a face?

You can learn a lot about a person by looking at their face.

Turns out, lots of genetic disorders can be diagnosed based on facial features alone. So a startup called FDNA is coupling facial recognition software with genotypic and phenotypic data to try and understand how genetic disorders reveal themselves in the face. 

The startup, which is backed by Teva R&D alum, was actually started nearly six years ago by the folks who founded — a facial recognition company that was acquired by Facebook. 

The technology has advanced to a point that it can “extend way beyond those known patterns of human malformations into uncharted territory,” CEO Dekel Gelbman told GenomeWeb.

More reads

  • First-person account: Genetic tests promised to help me achieve peak fitness. What I got was a fiasco. (STAT)
  • Buying old drugs and jacking up prices is a lucrative — and pervasive — business. (Bloomberg)
  • Former Sprout Pharmaceuticals investors are suing Valeant, claiming the company botched the marketing of a female libido drug by pricing it too high. (Reuters)
  • Checkpoint inhibitors for cancer can lead to rare but serious cases of heart trouble in patients. (STAT)

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Thanks for reading! Until tomorrow,

Damian & Meghana

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