Friday, August 12, 2016

The Readout by Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Good morning and welcome to your daily roundup of biotech news. For more, visit and follow us on Twitter.

Bringing balding into the 21st century

because there's nothing like waking up to see a nice wad of hair in a brush... you're welcome. (APSTOCK)

For women as well as men, it looks like there could soon be more than snake oil (and Rogaine) to treat that thinning mane: 

A startup called, of course, Rapunzel, is working on growing a crop of hair in a lab. And researchers are finding that JAK inhibitors — approved already for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and skin cancer — could be used to treat alopecia.

Meanwhile, San Diego upstart Samumed is directing some of its $220 million towards treating baldness... with some enticing preliminary results.

Read more.

Biotech’s red-tag sale might be over

The share value of biotech companies has severely dipped over the past year, as a summer zenith gave way to a brutal winter for upstart drug developers. But green shoots abound. The Nasdaq biotech index made up a lot of ground last month, and a handful of follow-on stock sales suggest biotech companies can still raise cash when they need it.

But the glass could be half empty for the pharma companies on the hunt for purchases that might replenish their pipelines. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Amgen, Gilead Sciences, Merck, and others have all said they're looking around at buyout targets this year. If biotech continues its slow turnaround, price tags will only tick upward.

Building tumor models in the lab

In this era of personalized medicine, oncologists want as much information as they can get about the genetic makeup of a patient's tumor. A number of companies, including Kendall Square startup Cellaria Bio, are trying to grow tumor models in the lab.

STAT chatted with CEO David Deems about the process:

So, what is it you do?

One of the things we don’t fully appreciate is the depth of the heterogeneity of tumor types. We make the assumption that the tumor is uniquely identified by its genomic profile, no matter where you sample the tumor. But that isn’t true — the tumor’s genetic makeup is different depending on where you’re sampling it.

We believe the models we create are unique enough that we can actually capture differences in an individual patient over the progression of a disease — and measure whether they’ll respond to drug treatment. So, instead of testing a drug in a patient, researchers can test it in their tumor model, in vitro.

And why might this help find treatments for the elusive pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is deadly — and it’s also pretty rare. There aren’t good treatments out there. And there aren’t well-suited models out there to understand the disease. By developing close models of patient tumor samples in vitro, it should be easier to identify targets, and develop compounds that are effective against those targets. 

And it’s not the primary tumor that kills the patient — it’s a metastatic tumor that spreads to kill the patient. So we’re building models to help understand how the primary tumor relates to the metastatic tumors — to help investigators answer how the diseases progress.

What even is insider trading?

Biopharma’s latest insider trading allegation has a lot of entertaining set pieces — flowing wine, deft wordplay, and a multibillion-dollar deal — but it also highlights the vagaries of the law.

The story is pinned to Pfizer’s 2010 acquisition of King Pharmaceuticals for $3.6 billion. Months before the deal, a financial adviser was having dinner with a friend and client — who happened to be a lawyer working with King, and who knew about the impending sale. This lawyer got quite drunk, according to the SEC, and mentioned that “it would be nice to be King for a day.” This, prosecutors say, was meant to imply that he had the inside track on a buyout and constituted a disclosure of nonpublic information.

The rest of the allegations follow a well-established script: shares purchased, secrets kept, merger announced, profits made.

But did the financial adviser actually break the law by buying shares on his friend’s inside information? His lawyers say no, because he didn’t offer anything in exchange for the tip. 

In 2014, a federal court made it harder to prosecute such cases by requiring the government to establish that the person providing insider information got some personal benefit in return. But just what constitutes a personal benefit has since divided appeals courts. In January, the Supreme Court agreed to take up a California case, and its eventual ruling should help clear up the apparent difference between illegal insider trading and taking advantage of loose lips.

More reads

  • After years of false starts and dead ends, will embryonic stem cells ever cure anything? (MIT Technology Review)
  • Protagonist Therapeutics raised $90 million in an IPO to support its work on treatments for inflammatory bowel disease. (Silicon Valley Business Journal)
  • It looks like Northwest Biotherapeutics is running out of money. (TheStreet)
  • Tyler Jacks, head of MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, co-founded a biotech startup focused on immuno-oncology. (Xconomy)
  • Abbott Laboratories' high-pressure sales practices in India violated local law, according to the New York Times, and drove one representative to suicide. (NYT)

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Thanks for reading! Until next week,

Damian & Meghana

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