Monday, June 20, 2016

The Readout by Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Welcome to The Readout, your daily update on what the drug business is talking about. Today, we look at the eternal fountain of buyout chatter, the Academy Awards of pharma ads, and the science behind an at-home fertility test for men. Need more? Visit

Long live specious buyout rumors

BioMarin, the California developer of rare disease drugs, has for years been a mainstay on “buyout targets to watch” lists, with rumors tying it to Roche, Shire, Pfizer, and probably any other pharma company you can think of.

So why not Sanofi? According to Betaville, a self-described “cheeky financial blog,” Sanofi is kicking the tires on BioMarin as a sort of fall-back option while it publicly tries to get Medivation to accept a $9.3 billion offer. This is according to “top sources,” Betaville’s Ben Harrington wrote Friday — “really … excellent sources,” he Trumpishly added.

And then it got fun. Credit Suisse picked up on the idea, telling investors that “while we have no way of knowing if this is accurate,” hey, why not? Rare disease treatments are relatively insulated from all the handwringing about drug prices, the firm noted, and BioMarin, valued at about $14 billion, has a bunch of them.

The notion quickly caught on on Twitter, where the advice of canines can sometimes nudge biotech stocks, and BioMarin eventually rose about 3 percent by Friday’s close. 

It’s worth noting that Harrington’s sources, top and otherwise, have been right before. But then all buyout rumoring comes with the colossal caveat that biopharma is a superlatively acquisitive industry. The arc of the drug universe is long, but it bends toward consolidation, and thus almost any prediction can be made to look wise if you’re patient enough.

So, hey, why not?

So where are the starlets?

Former Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler likened pharma to the movie business in the last century but declined to note which company would be United Artists. (GLG Institute)

Here is a metaphor for you: Pharma = Hollywood.

At least according to Jeff Kindler, the former CEO of Pfizer. Kindler, who has transitioned into the investment world since leaving Pfizer in 2010, went on the Andreessen Horowitz podcast (which is a thing) to discuss the future of drug development.

“If you think of Hollywood, the movie business, in the 1930s and '40s, the studios had everybody as an employee of the studio — the crew, the cast, the writers, the directors — and they just cranked out movies,” he said. “Today, the movie business is one in which the movie studios act as syndicators, financiers, commercial-oriented organizations — and they put together every move as a package with people who don’t necessarily work for them.”

Pharma, Kindler said, is heading in the same direction. Contract firms can handle much of the heavy lifting of drug development, while small biotech companies are good at the early-stage creative stuff. So what's big pharma's role? Translation and commercialization. Or as he put it, "figuring out what the market wants."

“Virtually everything else can be virtualized," he added. "No pun intended.”

A DIY semen tester

A semen centrifuge: That's the newest direct-to-consumer fertility device on the market. It runs on AA batteries, costs $159.99 — and even syncs with your phone. Can't you picture it on the shelves of Bed Bath & Beyond?

Bay Area startup Sandstone Diagnostics developed the sperm-counting device, called Trak, to help men better understand their fertility status. The Trak got clearance from the FDA earlier this month. 

STAT chatted with CEO Greg Sommer about the uncomfortable realities of infertility testing — and why he contends an at-home sperm test might simplify the process.

Why an at-home testing device?

Today's testing practices in doctors' offices are awkward, embarrassing, and prohibitively expensive for couples. And, in general, it's a big step for couples to go from the mindset of "we're having trouble conceiving" to "we're going to seek fertility treatment." The Trak isn't a be-all-end-all semen analysis platform, but it's a good first step for couples who are exploring their fertility.

Why the need for a fertility testing device for men?

Infertility is widely considered women's problem. And it's the women who seek out treatment first — on average, men aren't tested until they've been trying to conceive for a year and a half. We want to help guys take some proactive steps in understanding their fertility status.

An 'Oscar bump' for a medical device?

The south of France became pharma's Hollywood over the weekend for the annual Lions Health creative awards in Cannes — a kind of Oscars for the makers of health-themed ads.

Taking the top prize in the pharma category: an unbranded ad for a portable oxygen concentrator from Philips, the global conglomerate perhaps best known for making light bulbs. The emotional four-and-a-half-minute video shows people with chronic respiratory conditions like COPD training to sing despite their difficulty breathing, culminating in a group performance of the '80s classic "Every Breath You Take."

The widely viewed ad has already helped drive increased quarterly sales of the device by 14 percent, according to PR Week. We'll see if the Lions Health award translates into even better sales.

The other big award in the health and wellness category went to an ad from the educational materials company Pearson. The haunting two-minute video shines a light on the health effects of illiteracy by matching each letter of the alphabet with an example of how the inability to read can harm health or exacerbate efforts to combat disease. Examples: A is for AIDS, B is for bloodshed, and E is for Ebola.

The people have spoken

Last week, we asked you to name the reportedly quite real movie about the Theranos saga, and did you ever deliver. The winner, with a resounding majority of your votes, is "The Sticking Point."

Please forward this information to Adam McKay, Harvey Weinstein, Megan Ellison, or whoever else might need to know. Maybe skip Amy Pascal.

And when, inevitably, this movie endures years of developmental hell before being shelved indefinitely, we'll always be able to think back fondly on this moment.

The Biotech Devil's Dictionary

There’s a lot of jargon, coded language, and outright nonsense in biotech, and we want to clear up — and celebrate — as much of it as we can through this glossary, updated weekly. Have a phrase to contribute? Email it on over.

Holy Grail (n.): Used in biotech to describe things that would be insanely lucrative if they actually worked, like oral insulin, disease-modifying Alzheimer's therapies, and pain pills that can't be abused.

"Ultra-deep sequencing to detect circulating tumor DNA has the potential to be the holy grail for early cancer detection in asymptomatic individuals" — the press materials from a diagnostics company that one-upped everyone by actually naming itself "Grail."

More reads

  • Martin Shkreli does not believe in the "YOLO" school of stock investment thought. So he doles out some financial advice on Reddit, urging prudence and citing the $20 million he personally invested (and shorted the stock) in Celladon Corp. (Reddit)
  • The CRISPR patent wars are in full swing, but in terms of awards, the scientists behind the technology must play nice: Feng Zhang, Jennifer Doudna, and Emmanuelle Charpentier just landed (and must share) the Tang Prize — a prestigious academic award given out by Taiwan's top research institution. (MIT News)
  • Epizyme just released ultra-early results that give an (encouraging) update on how its flagship cancer drug tazemetostat is performing in lymphoma patients. (Xconomy
  • The experimental cat allergy drug from British biotech Circassia just flopped in late stage clinical trials; turns out placebo was just as effective in reducing symptoms as the immunotherapy. Bummer. (Bloomberg)
  • Ariad Pharmaceuticals completed its "strategic review," which ended with no buyout and no major partnership, to the disappointment of investors. (Press release)
  • George Clooney and the creators of "Making a Murderer" are teaming up to produce a TV show about Johnson & Johnson's Risperdal scandal. (The Hollywood Reporter)
  • If the UK chooses to leave the European Union, the European Medicines Agency would need to find a new headquarters. (The Wall Street Journal)

Have a news tip or comment you want to send us?

Send us an email

Thanks for reading! Until tomorrow,

Damian & Meghana

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